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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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In Spring Breakers, reality fades faster than a suntan in March
Next stop, fantasyland
Swimming in problems.
Swimming in problems.

Harmony Korine, writer and director of Spring Breakers, launched his career as a teenager by writing the script for Larry Clark's incendiary opus Kids. His output since has included a movie about pranksters roaming the streets humping trash cans. But don't presume that Korine's work revolves around empty provocation.

If you accept that premise, you'll misread Spring Breakers. Indeed, the movie's opening sequence - a slow-motion parade of young bodies flashing bare skin while dancing, beer-bonging and simulating illegal-in-multiple-states sex acts - feels like a brazen dare: "Go ahead, take me seriously. This movie is just about T&A."

That impression will likely continue when you meet the four leads, who play college friends desperately wanting to visit Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Troublemaking ringleaders Candy and Brit are played by High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens and Pretty Little Liars' Ashley Benson; Disney Channel ingenue Selena Gomez plays the Bible-studying Faith. What a marketing ploy: See your innocent pop-culture dream girls lose their innocence.

But Spring Breakers isn't about losing innocence; it's about losing a grip on reality. Early on, as the girls realize that their financial resources aren't enough to get them to Florida, three of them decide to rob a restaurant. "Pretend like it's a videogame," Candy recommends before they go, "like you're in a movie." When you eventually see how the heist went down, you'll realize they're playing the kind of badasses they've seen in the media. They use the conventions of one kind of fantasy world to get to another.

The problem with this fantasy world isn't that it exists, but that those who dive in want it to exist without limits. As the girls revel in their party-filled nights, they start to talk about abandoning the tedious life they left behind for a world of consequence-free pleasures.

Things get more real when a would-be rapper and drug dealer called Alien (James Franco) bails the girls out of jail. Franco is pitch-perfect, showing off wads of cash and an armory of weapons while talking about Scarface. He's an example of a different kind of media-fueled hedonism. As the girls are folded into his world, we get brilliant sequences like a crime spree scored to the sugary pop of Britney Spears' "Everytime" and a pink-neon-lit shootout that feels like a Miami Vice outtake.

You could shrug this all off as another alarmist warning that the kids aren't all right. But Korine edits Spring Breakers into a surreal dream state that mimics its characters' blissed-out belief in their own invincibility. If there's a provocation here, it's to show you that something toxic happens on the road from wanting a vacation to wanting a perpetual spring break.

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