Just looking at the poster for the dark drama Spring Breakers is enough to send the heart sinking. Grand Prairie-born Selena Gomez, best known for starring in the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place , stands on the left, wearing only a blue bikini bottom and an orange bikini top. Her hand in on her hip, her head is thrown back, her pink-lipped mouth is open in a lascivious smile—and she’s squeezed right up against three other scantily-clad babes, Vanessa Hudgins, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.
Memories of Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato on the cover of Playboy, or Home Alone tyke Maculaey Culkin sporting a blue wig and glittery eye make-up in Party Monster flood the brain: There is nothing quite so desperate as a onetime childhood star trying to seem “mature” and “edgy.”
As it turns out, Spring Breakers— which will screen at the South by Southwest Film Festival tonight and Thursday, and then open nationally on March 22—demands a closer look, precisely because of the imaginative way its toys with our cultural obsession with sexed-up young celebrities. Gomez, now 20, plays Faith, who leads something of a double-life at her unnamed college. One minute she’s attending a prayer group meeting with fellow Christians students, and the next she’s scheming to rob a convenience store with her bad girl friends, so they can pay for a spring break trip to Florida.
Spring Breakers is written and directed by Harmony Korine, who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), and then went on to make a series of movies perhaps a little too self-consciously fascinated with societally marginalized weirdos, like Gummo (1997) and Trash Humpers (2009). If the title and poster for this new film suggest some sort of MTV comic romp, there’s certainly some of that: Korine’s camera gets right up close to these tanned-and-toned bodies as they dance and booze and snort lines of coke beneath the Florida sunshine.
But as the movie carries forth, it turns stranger and darker and more familiarly Korine-like, as Faith begins to have serious second doubts about taking this trip. When a drug dealer turns up (played by James Franco, in braces and cornrows, sounding like Matthew McConaughey’s poor white trash cousin), Faith must choose between the path of the righteous and the path of the next party.
What’s intriguing about Spring Breakers is that it can ultimately be read as a kind of commentary on what happens to a young woman when the Disney machine spits her out . (Gomez made her name on the network’s Wizards of Waverly Place , while her co-star Hudgins is best known for High School Musical ). In an age where our tabloid culture insists on your coarsening, the movie asks, is it better to take ownership of your own exploitation, or allow others to do it for you? (The film’s perhaps predictable conclusion: You’re pretty much damned either way.)
I don’t want to make great claims for Spring Breakers , which is edited so fast that anyone born before 1994 is at risk of having a seizure watching it, and which lurches awkwardly between hallucinatory acid trip and straight-ahead crime thriller. Nor is Gomez’s performance one for the ages: She struts around in her bikini, quivers her lower lip in anxiety, and makes a too early exit from the proceedings. But as desperate former child star measures go, this one is unusually clever. Gomez at least seems to be aware that the cynics are waiting for her to stumble spectacularly, a la Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or her friend and fellow Texan Demi Lovato . Spring Breakers suggests she’s not going down without a fight.
(You can watch the trailer for the film here.)