AUSTIN - James Franco, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens are about to ruin a lot of potential spring breaks.
But watching Franco's performance in Spring Breakers, which got its U.S. premiere here Sunday night at the South By Southwest Film Festival, will be worth it. At least for those whose spring breaking days are in the past.
Years ago, director Harmony Korine, writer of the iconic 1995 film Kids, had a dream about girls in bikinis robbing tourists during spring break. That naturally born vision gestated into a film that puts former Disney star Gomez firmly on a trajectory into a new adult acting career.
"I am super-blessed to be a part of the channel. I really am," Gomez said on the red carpet before the screening. "It was four years of my life that was the right thing I needed to do at that time. But I am turning 21 this year (and) there is nothing wrong with growing up. I'm super-stoked to be able to branch out and do different things."
This is different, all right. Events start out innocently enough. The aptly named Faith (Gomez) and her three friends want to go to spring break, but haven't saved enough money. So the other three - Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of Harmony) - go gangster and rob a diner with water pistols.
Flush with cash, they head for St. Petersburg for fun in the sun. Events quickly escalate to a girls-gone-wild weekend and the four are arrested.
Enter Alien (Franco), a real rapping gangster, complete with long cornrows and platinum grillz. He spots the girls, arrested and jailed in their bikinis, and sees an opportunity. After bailing them out, he tells them "I'm a (expletive) gangster with a heart of gold."
Without giving away what happens next, some girls find their way home, while others don't. And, in a beef with another local gangster, some get hurt.
Beach Blanket Bingo this is not. "It turns into this dark, dark, dark movie," said Benson, "and takes you on a crazy ride."
Before the screening, director Korine acknowledged that critics may target the violence and sex, but he defended his right to make the film.
"It is my kind of impressionistic reinterpretation of that world and all those things as they kind of coalesce and become something else," he said. "I would say there is merit in beauty and horror - and vice versa - and the film explores that."
A moviegoer asked Korine during a cast discussion after the screening about the ambiguous ending, which she said reminded her of Thelma & Louise. "I want you to dream on it," Korine said. "Do you want to be told everything all the time?"
But the film's message concerned Houston high school teacher Jennifer Baldwin. Some young adults might think they need to experiment as the characters did, she said. "I think the movie was really driven with a lot of skin and drugs and cultural references," Baldwin said. "I am all for art and creating, but are we feeding our kids this and telling them this is how they are supposed to be?"
Overall, Baldwin said, "the story itself was pretty good, but the thing that was a hit out of the ballpark was James Franco's character and the way he portrayed that character. I was impressed with that."
Franco's all-in performance includes a Scarface-like monologue and a memorable rendition of Britney Spears' Everytime.
One of her students, Maddison Lopez, 17, a finalist in the festival's short film competition, wondered whether the film was a good move for Gomez. "It's a big leap and a very risky film," she said. "I don't know what little kids are going to think about this because she's no longer going to be a part of Disney after this lets out."
Also, Lopez wondered about real-world repercussions for herself, future spring breakers and and their parents. "I was worried for my mom. She's going to think we are going to do this at spring break in college," Lopez said. "It was a little over exaggerated. Maybe it was a satire."