It remains to be seen whether "Spring Breakers" turns out to be one of the movies of the year, but it is without question a movie of its moment. It has been a source of intense interest since shooting first started around St. Pete Beach in Florida last spring, as images began to surface via paparazzi and social media of young starlets Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson.
Seeming to be a part of raunchy spring break shenanigans, they were seen riding scooters, frolicking on the beach and being marched around in bikinis and handcuffs. The chaotic energy of that fun-house atmosphere, where sometimes paparazzi outnumbered the film's crew, was something that writer-director Harmony Korine realized he had to capture in the film itself.
The fractured storytelling of the movie — what Korine calls its "liquid narrative" — along with imagery and dialogue seemingly ready-made for the culture of Twitter/Tumblr/Instagram, make it a film engaged with the uncertainty, complications and communication of right now.
The film has a looping, disorienting structure that takes on a narcotic tinge as the story follows four small-town college students who fund their spring break party trip with a robbery, setting them off on a crime spree that doesn't stop. With its woozy score created by electronic musician Skrillex and "Drive" composer Cliff Martinez, Korine describes "Spring Breakers" as "like a violent pop song that smashes you in the head and disappears into the night."
"I wanted it to work in both ways," Korine explained in Los Angeles, still with the spirit of a slapstick imp even though he is now a 40-year-old married father living in Nashville. "I wanted to make a movie that was about a culture of surfaces, and the film is about the way things look and feel, and a certain type of audience can react to and enjoy only the surface. But then the true meaning, the pathology, is the residue from that."
The film has its U.S. premiere this weekend as part of the South by Southwest festival and opens in Los Angeles and New York on March 15 ahead of a national rollout.
"Spring Breakers" is the latest from onetime enfant terrible Korine, best known for the confrontational, transgressive '90s works "Kids" and "Gummo" that made him a celebrity of the alternative demimonde. After a few years away from filmmaking following 1999's "Julien Donkey-Boy," a jarring tale of schizophrenia, he reemerged with 2007's lyrical "Mister Lonely," about a colony of celebrity impersonators, and 2009's prankish "Trash Humpers," about a marauding gang of the elderly.
Korine now makes an unlikely play for mainstream accessibility while maintaining his edge. With a cast that includes young stars Gomez, Hudgens and Benson, the film also features the ever-busy James Franco as a flamboyant character named Alien, Korine's wife, Rachel, rapper Gucci Mane and for good measure "Glee" star Heather Morris in a small role.
The film, made for around $5 million, premiered last fall at prestigious festivals in Venice and Toronto. After an energized first public screening in Toronto — the crowd burst into cheers when the tender Britney Spears ballad "Everytime" faded up — most questions from the audience of young fans of the stars were along the lines of curious bewilderment, variations on "what was that?"
"I think what's interesting about Harmony is he wants that reaction," said Gomez, alongside Hudgens and Benson in Los Angeles after a recent European tour with the film. "So in a way that's what we expect."
In conversation the trio — everyone involved in the film seems to just call them "the girls" — have the poise one might expect. Gomez and Hudgens come from the Disney school of multi-talent child stars and Benson is one of the leads on the popular ABC Family show "Pretty Little Liars." They have a combined Twitter following roughly equivalent to the population of the Netherlands, yet they seem reluctant to engage with how the film maneuvers the power of their celebrity to its own ends.
With his actresses playing against type, Korine's exploratory methods pressed them all into unlikely directions. After Gomez performed an emotionally draining scene with the other actresses, Korine pulled her into the backroom of the seedy pool hall they had been using as a location for a scene she had not been aware of.
"There were real moments in there," Gomez said of the scene in which Franco's rapper-gangster tries to persuade her character to stay by using a street hustler's emotional manipulation. "The way he was reacting really freaked me out."
For her part, Rachel Korine, 26, acknowledges she was something of a den mother to the other actresses. "I wanted them to know they could trust Harmony," she said. "I wanted them to feel protected and safe and that there were no mistakes. I definitely felt like I was there to help."
In what may become the film's most notorious scene, after Franco's Alien delivers a long speech about all he has accomplished and acquired, Benson and Hudgens' characters turn the tables in an electrifying moment where they brandish handguns in a sexually charged way.
"He just wanted us to push it and then push even further," said Hudgens of Korine's direction for the scene, which began to take shape in rehearsals but went to startling places while shooting.
"I didn't think that I would do any of that," said Benson. "I was shocked, and when I see that scene I'm like, 'Oh, my God.'"
"Spring Breakers" is among the initial releases of fledgling distributor A24, which looks to be cornering the market on films that work the intersection of the art house and youth audiences, including "Ginger & Rosa," starring Elle Fanning, Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" and recent Sundance hit "The Spectacular Now."
Adding to the air of anticipation around the film, upstart Hollywood financier Megan Ellison has added Korine to her roster of filmmakers that includes modern mavericks Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Thomas Anderson. Ellison stepped in as an executive producer after seeing the finished film ahead of its world premiere.
If Korine's "Trash Humpers" seemed born from the anxiety of generational and cultural turnover, "Spring Breakers" comes from the place of youth and newness, a celebration of danger and the creativity of disruption, though seen from the outsider perspective of the director's oncoming middle age.
"If I could explain it to you, say this is how I feel and why, I probably wouldn't make the movie," said Korine. "What I'm trying to show you is this is the way it feels to me. These are my impressions. I'm not mourning the past. I feel it's more creative now, more exciting now, the possibility," he said, before exulting: "It's stranger now than it ever has been."