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Toronto 2012 Day 2: Selena Gomez, scuzz

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 7, 2012 07:45 PM

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Spring Breakers.jpg

This morning on my way to a movie, I ran into a colleague headed in the opposite direction. "Where are you headed?" he asked. I told him I was going to Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers." The look I got was the sort of look given by even professional moviegoers presented with a new Korine movie, like you just waved a pair of dirty socks in their face. "I don't know how you can do that at this hour," he said.

This is all to say that at 9:30 a.m., at a big international film festival, there are two types of people: the ones who make a Harmony Korine face and the ones who just go to a Harmony Korine movie. A subset of the first type of person skips the Korine to see how on earth you make a movie out of Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children." Maybe I should have gone and seen for myself. "Spring Breakers" is Korine making what seems like the sort of movie that's based on one he would hate to watch.

Korine exalts grotesquerie and filth. He wrote "Kids," and has directed one notorious art-house film after another -- "Gummo," "Julien Donkey-Boy," "Mister Lonely," "Trash Humpers." People tend to despise these movies. But Korine doesn't care. He embraces ugliness and darkness and horror in ways that other filmmakers only pretend to. Korine is like a creature from a Stephen King novel magically endowed with the talent to make movies.

He has his defenders. I'd include myself among them. "Gummo" luxuriates in its impoverished setting, but there's something authentic in that movie. It's on the border between cruel exploitation and freaky affinity. "Mister Lonely" felt like an emotional breakthrough, and "Trash Humpers" was like a horror-film version of "Jack-Ass." When it premiered here a couple of years ago, people shrugged. But Korine was on to something -- he wanted to make a kind of evil-prank proto-reality television. Its distressed, faux-found footage was scary and a little bit funny.

The idea of "Spring Breakers" is hilariously diabolical, too. It's a profane, debauched nightmare that happens to star the tween idols Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens. Hudgens has been trying to dirty her image. But I imagine Gomez was cast when Korine drove by her in an empty 18-passenger van and asked if she wanted a ride. Gomez looks particularly uncomfortable -- with the sex, the drugs, the profanity, the nudity (not her own). She plays a squeaky-clean, Christian college kid obsessed with spring break. She winds up in St. Petersburg, Fla., with three stoned, coked-up, insatiably horny childhood girlfriends (Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine's wife, Rachel).

Sans Gomez, they rob a restaurant to pay for the trip; and after the cops bust up a blow out, arrest and jail them, James Franco -- in cornrows, tattoos, and a set of dental grills -- bails them out. He has ulterior motives, obviously. His uncouth hamminess resets the repetitive throb, but it also removes all the danger. What looked like a tired but characteristically scuzzy youth-culture satire turns into a self-conscious gangsta film that just wants to commit all the transgressions it was sending up. I don't know why Korine would want to orchestrate his wife's being doused in alcohol and nearly assaulted by party boys. It didn't make me uncomfortable. But it didn't have a point, either.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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