After years of watching a particular actor, you start to think you know what they're capable of, what their limits are, what they will and won't do. And that's pretty much where I was with James Franco, who tends to be pretty great even in bad movies, but with performance in everything from 127 HOURS to this month's OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, I thought I knew his range and limits. And then at SXSW recently, I saw him in writer-director Harmony Korine's SPRING BREAKERS and my mind was blown irreparably.
We'll get to the rest of the film in a minute, but let's talk Franco for a while. In the film, he plays a rapper named Alien, complete with cornrows in his hair, a gold grill covering his teeth, and a big dumb grin to go along with his. His accent is pure Cajun gangsta, and his mannerisms are a twisted amalgam of every hip-hop video he's ever seen. It's a masterful performance that deserves award after award from now until next year's Oscars. You'll be quoting Alien's lines for at least six months, but probably longer. It's pure hazardous electricity that had me terrified, exhilarated, and thrilled with the prospect that one of my favorite actors is still actively improving his craft.
As for the rest of the movie? Yeah, it's pretty incredible at times as Korine (GUMMO, MISTER LONELY) puts forth a display of behavior that will both disgust and provoke audiences. And that's just from the actual spring breakers who Korine then throws his actors in the midst of. This is the tale of four college girls, who all seem to have different ideas of what spring break means to them. For some, it means bad behavior and no consequences, but for others (especially Selena Gomez's Faith), it's a time to escape the good-girl life she's been living since she was a child. When the girls realize they don't have enough money for their trip, they simply commit an armed robbery (with painted water pistols). Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine only seem to know how to escalate as they go from crimes with fake weapons to using Alien's cache of weapons to commit very real crimes with deadly consequences.
The entire film takes on the violent haze of a fever dream mixed with a party nightmare. There's a sequence in which Alien is attempting to talk Faith out of leaving their happy little band of misfits, and it's utterly terrifying. All Franco does is touch her face and stand way too close to her, but it's enough to completely shatter her illusion of what this "paradise" truly is. Even a sequence set in a beyond-nasty strip club is impossible to enjoy because the tension levels are amped up as far as they can go thanks to a territory beef between Alien and a rival drug dealer threatening to explode.
SPRING BREAKERS is a mind-fuck art-house film cleverly disguised as an exercise in putting young flesh on display that still manages to do a fine job of putting said flesh on display. I wish I could be at every screening of this movie just so I could watch the reactions of young girls going into it thinking Disney princesses Hudgens and Gomez were doing a cutesy movie about going to Florida with their pals. If they don't flee the theater, they'll see the finest work of Franco and Korine's respective careers, and an impressive head-first dive in adult acting for Hudgens in particular, who goes for absolute broke here. Gomez gets off a little easier, but her scene with Franco probably emotionally scarred her for life.
Don't go into SPRING BREAKERS worried too much about plot. There is one; don't misunderstand. But really this is a film that assaults all five of your senses (if you can't smell and taste how nasty this place is, you aren't watching it right) and leaves you begging for more. The film doesn't hold back on the violence, nudity (mainly with the extras), or music overload. I loved the experience even as I dreaded what was coming next at almost every turn. It's tough to explain, so just grow a pair and go see it. I predict this film will show up on a few end-of-year lists and rightfully so. You've never seen anything quite like it, and that's probably a good thing.