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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Spring Breakers'

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Special photo From left, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine star in "Springbreakers."

Spring Breakers

R

3 out of 4 stars

It's not unusual for an independent/art-house film such as "Spring Breakers" to have multiple producers or production companies footing the bill (there are close to a dozen listed in the opening credits). Movies with decidedly limited and/or no mass-audience/commercial appeal regularly face such hurdles, but none to date have featured two Disney-bred teen starlets in the cast. This glaring oddity, as people in both the entertainment and information-distribution industries often like to say, is BIG NEWS.

If the previous paragraph doesn't grab your attention, consider this: one of the (now very former) Disney girls plays a character that is seen swilling booze, smoking pot, committing armed robbery, killing people with automatic weapons, getting naked and having sex (with a both man and a woman at the same time). That would be Vanessa ("High School Musical") Hudgens. The other -- Selena ("Wizards of Waverly Place") Gomez -- only gets high, drinks a little and prances around most of the time in a bikini. Compared to Hudgens here, Gomez is Mother Teresa.

If you can ignore one of the most blatant acts of stunt casting in movie history (which is impossible) and grade "Spring Breakers" solely for its merits as a film, it's very well done and will spark a ton of water-cooler debate. It tackles a number of perennial touchy issues (teen sex, drugs, drinking, violence and what used to be referred to simply as rock 'n' roll) and does so without ever getting close to passing any kind of (pro or con) moral judgment. That's a tough nut to crack.

Considered by most (especially by those who have actually done it) as a young adult rite of passage, the annual trek to Florida in early spring by millions of college students is an accepted (if not entirely condoned) pure American experience. What writer/director Harmony Korine so cunningly depicts in his film -- most of which will likely be lost on or misinterpreted by many -- is his getting all of the incidental stuff exactly right. The plot itself is more than a bit nebulous and often silly, but "Spring Breakers" succeeds more because of its "how" than its "what."

Presenting everything wildly out of sequence ala Quentin Tarantino and with only minimal dialogue, Korine's movie is an episode of "Girls Gone Wild" by way of "Bonnie & Clyde," "Scarface," "American Psycho" and "Beach Blanket Bingo." Korine's sensibilities are spot-on and his use of obscure music and oblique pop-culture references are on a par with Tarantino. If he's lacking in anything on the surface it is his overreliance on saturated and manipulated film stock.

Back to the plot: four girls (three bad, one good -- all friends since forever) are low on funds for their spring break trip. Allergic to actual work and in need of a quick remedy to their cash fix, the three bad seeds decide to knock over a diner while armed with a sledgehammer and a squirt gun. Shown from drastically different perspectives at various points, their heist is a total success and now flush, off to the Sunshine State they go.

Immediately the quartet is totally enveloped in instant and thorough debauchery and like everyone in their company, they can't get hammered and go freewheeling too soon. The previous aforementioned "good girl" -- the appropriately named Faith (Gomez) -- a semi-bible-thumper -- soon tosses in the towel, not so much over misplaced peer pressure but out of a rightful fear of self-preservation.

This comes after far too much time spent in the company of Alien (James Franco), a cornrowed, silver-grill, pale-white-boy-in-the-hood who comes to the aid of the girls after they find themselves in semi-scalding legal water. Alien (pronounced A-Leen) is everything and more you might expect from a Florida drug-dealer/gangbanger: lots 'o' cash, a cache of guns and endless oozing, silky smooth small talk.

The further "Spring Breakers" progresses the more ominous it grows and seems headed for tragedy on an epic scale -- which it achieves but not in the expected manner. The final scene -- so crucial to the success of Korine's grand vision -- falls frustratingly short. It lands squarely in the non-reality territory that robs everything that has preceded it. It's the same sort of impossible is-it-real-or-a-dream-sequence thing that kept "American Psycho" from being perfect.

"Spring Breakers" is what might have happened to the more privileged types who lived on the other side of the tracks that Korine conjured up in his "Kids" screenplay -- written when he was a mere 19 years old. He's grown wiser, knows more about life and shows signs of future greatness with "Spring Breakers." It will be interesting to see where he goes with his next venture. (A24)