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The Kids Are Not Alright

Harmony Korine takes another unblinking, beautiful and grotesque look at America’s youth in Spring Breakers

Yes, yes, yes: Spring Breakers, the latest film by aging wunderkind Harmony Korine, is a veritable fiesta of tits and ass. And we’re not talking about your daddy’s Mousketeer variety of bikini-and-tramp-crack-clad tits and ass, a’la Annette Funicello, but the sort of gone-wild nekkid tits and ass that shake and undulate in drunken slow motion, so that even on the most toned collegiate body you can see ripples of cellulose motoring around under the burnt umber of tanned skin. Shot with a kind of repulsed affection by cinematographer Benoit Debie (Enter the Void), the film opens with hordes of swinging dicks and boobs, then quickly turns sour as we see indistinguishable boys and girls pouring gallons of booze into each other, and then flipping endless birds at the screen.

If this is vacation, it’s a vacation to hell, American-style.

Korine is best known as the 22-year-old screenwriter of Larry Clarke’s 1995 Kids, an uncorked grenade of a movie that was lobbed like a first strike into the nihilistic heart of the empty generation. It went off like fear itself. That film, which introduced a teenaged Chloe Sevigny to the world as the naive huntress searching for the little fucker that gave her HIV, was completely un-fun and riveting, like watching someone snort glass. Korine’s new film, which he both wrote and directed, is equally disconcerting and tempting, though it lacks Kids’ meandering propulsion. Spring Breakers is either the most fascinating boring movie of the year, or the most boring movie you need to see. It’s a sticky experience, like crawling across the floor of a porn theater.

The story of four college girls — Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) and former Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — who absolutely must get to St. Petersburg, albeit late, to join their fellow alums for spring break. Short on cash, three of the girls, minus the good-hearted Faith (Gomez), rob the local Chicken Shack with ski masks, rubber mallets and a water pistol full of alcohol. At first, their arrival in the land of revelers seems edenic — all scooter rides and soft drunks. Then they get popped and skidded for narcotics, led into the local jail in bikinis and cuffs. They can pay their way out with the money they don’t have, or they can sit in hoosegow another two days.

Enter Alien (James Franco), a gold-capped, corn-rowed gangsta who bails them out, apparently with no strings attached. Yeah, right: In very little time, this grinning pusher, with his bent charm and Scarface dreams, adopts the girls (minus Faith, who wisely bolts for home) as his own personal harem, running guns and doing crimes. Shit goes south, of course, though not before we’re treated to surreal passages of modern drug-and-gun life.

Spring Breakers is beautiful to look at, in the same way the art of Cindy Sherman or Hieronymus Bosch is beautiful; Korine’s vision is highly stylized and oddly energized; it is also intensely moral, in the angry mode of Jonathan Swift or Terry Southern. In large part, the medium is the message here, and Korine is swift and agile about offering documentary evidence of the apocalyptic tendencies he flays (real spring breakers surround the small cast). Problems occur, however, at the level of narrative: To tell his story, Korine allows time to overlap and circle back, so what we get are not so much flashbacks as repetitions and reiterations. This slows the film down, making it seem long when it most certainly is not (it runs 93 minutes). And this isn’t something editing can fix. It’s a hitch at the level of storytelling.

Still, Korine is a talented filmmaker, and Spring Breakers contains a multitude of indelible images that haunt you long after you leave (flee, rather) the theater: bare-chested frat boys pouring booze down other dudes throats from bottles wagged at dick level; the addled fear in the eyes of a young woman gacked on meth; the wicked, materialistic lust that twists Franco’s lips as he talks about “all the shit” he has — meaning guns, cars and cash. In fact, Franco is the best reason to see this film. His portrayal of Alien, a delusional sociopath “with a heart of gold,” is completely unsettling in its subtlety and intelligence; as fucked as the dude is, he’s almost impossible to resist.

SPRING BREAKERS: Written and directed by Harmony Korine. Cinematography, Benoit Debie. Music by Cliff Martinez, Skrillex and Guccci Mane. Starring James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane. A24, Annapurna Pictures, 2013. R. 93 minutes. Four stars.