On the surface Spring Breakers, playing at the Toronto Film Festival right now, looks like the kind of movie you might expect Disney tween stars to graduate into once they're of legal age and their fans have grown up a bit too. The basic premise is as old as Anne Funicello beach movies-- four girls scrape together the cash to take a beach vacation, get into misadventures, learn about themselves.
But there's a curdled, dark and sometimes very funny core to Spring Breakers that will stun anyone who walks in expecting to see Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez in their first grown-up roles. The girls are grown-up, alright, but Spring Breakers exists to twist that idea and even parody the whole tradition of spring break movies-- while also encouraging the girls to indulge in all the stereotypical bad behavior. Just how shocking do these Disney Channel starlets get?
Not paying attention in class. Alright, this is a pretty minor infraction, and something Hannah Montana might have been busted for. But when we first meet Hudgens's Candy and Ashley Benson's Brit, they're not only goofing off in class, but writing notes to each other that say "I want penis" and drawing pictures of those penises in question. Like we all did back in college.
Binge drinking. Par for the course in the standard spring break movies and on The Real World, and there's plenty of it here. But truly, you've never seen girls doing beer funnels or letting guys pour it into their mouths until you've seen Harmony Korine film it as if it's a disgusting sex act that's been happening in public all these years with nobody noticing.
Armed robbery. Yeah, here's where things start to get really interesting. In the old days girls might hold a bake sale or even a bikini car wash to raise the cash for a spring break trip. These girls grab very realistic looking squirt guns and a giant mallet and hold up the world's dingiest looking chicken restaurant, then burn the getaway car. Believe it or not, it works. So those of you who saved up your babysitting money to go on spring break? Suckers!!
Cocaine. Again, pretty standard MTV-level behavior, though when the girls sniff it off each others' bodies, they're surely taking it to the next level.
Getting tossed in jail. We never really know why the girls are interrupted in the middle of a beachside rager to be tossed in the pokey, and eventually appear in front of a judge in nothing but their bikinis. There's plenty of reasons to arrest them, sure, but the difference between a spring break to remember and a spring break to carefully avoid mentioning on your resume is the one that involves jail time.
Hooking up with a guy in cornrows who calls himself Alien and who is played by James Franco. The first half of Spring Breakers is a repetitive, almost hypnotic spin on the modern beachside tradition, with lurid shots of the girls drinking jarringly coupled with Selena Gomez's character in voiceover, talking about how "special" this place is. Then halfway through the girls team up with James Franco's Alien-- yet another completely wild and subtly hilarious character from the ever-unpredictable Franco-- and that's where the movie finally gets interesting. And also the kind of thing that would give any parent of tweens an aneurysm.
Judging from responses I've gotten on twitter, a lot of people are wondering if Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez are good in these grown-up roles. It's kind of an irrelevant question, though-- Harmony Korine isn't asking these women to act, but participate in a surreal takedown of the American culture of youthful excess, while also making a surprisingly strong argument for female empowerment for sexuality. If that doesn't appeal to you, there's also Franco's bizarre performance with instant-classic line reading ("Look at my shit!") and a scene in which Hudgens and Benson encourage him to fellate two guns. Gomez doesn't get in on nearly as much of the fun-- she's the token "good girl"-- so she can probably avoid the wrath of the uptight Justin Bieber fans for now. But with dyed blonde hair and a weird relish of her dirtiest lines, Hudgens is clearly running as far as she can from High School Musical-- and she's believable in the role, for what that's worth.
I was bored by the first half of Spring Breakers but weirdly compelled by the second half, not just for how James Franco livened things up but how Korine finally seemed to have something to say about dumb spring break culture, rather than just indulging in it to the point of making it all feel lurid. I still don't really know if I liked it, and I have no idea if you will either, but it's been the surprising hit among critics at TIFF, who made last night's press screening the first capacity crowd I've seen at the festival. I do kind of relish the idea of Gomez and Hudgens's fans checking out the movie based on word that people liked it at a film festival, because it's so against pretty much everything you'd expect from these actresses. But is that kind of surprise a fun challenge, or just torture? Depends on how much surreal and aggressive weirdness you want to see in your spring break.