SXSW: Selena Gomez Gone Wild: 'Spring Breakers' Debuts Stateside

Spring SXSW - H2013

Spring SXSW - H2013

The former Disney Channel star joins James Franco, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine for the U.S. premiere of Harmony Korine's latest.

AUSTIN -- Sunday night at South by Southwest Film Festival easily belonged to Spring Breakers, a kaleidoscopic fever dream from director Harmony Korine, who managed somehow to craft an art film steeped in the three tenets of 2013-era youth culture: sex, drugs and dubstep. Stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, former products of the Disney dream factory, don't just shed their good-girl images with the project -- they effectively drop a 50-megaton bomb on them.

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Korine packs scene after scene in orgiastic day-glo imagery: Mounds of cocaine cover female torsos, boys in jockstraps stand over them wielding overflowing beer bongs, and James Franco hovers above it all as Alien, an unforgettable underworld entrepreneur who easily could have beamed down from another planet. His encounter with two loaded guns won't make any Oscar montages, but undoubtedly will be one of the most talked-about scenes of the year.

"The movie came to me like a dream," Korine, 40, told the giddy crowd after the film's U.S. premiere. "I’d been collecting spring break imagery for a couple of years from fraternity and co-ed pornography [websites]. ... There were all these hypersexualized, hyperviolent subjects. But then there’s all these interesting, childlike details -- like nail polish and bags, stuff like that. So I just imagined girls on a beach in bikinis robbing fat tourists. I thought that was funny, and from there I started building that image and dreaming this story."

Working with Franco had been something the two had talked about for years, but it wasn't until Korine started researching the locals of St. Petersburg, Fla., where the bulk of the action takes place, that the cornrowed character started to come into focus.

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"He sent me some videos of this weird white guy with dreadlocks rapping in a car," Franco recalled. "I couldn’t really understand what he was saying. Harmony said, 'Listen to this, this is the model for your character.' " That man, who goes by Dangeruss, actually found his way into the movie, rapping alongside Franco during Alien's first appearance.

The plot is simple enough: Four girls, played by Gomez, Hudgens, Pretty Little Liars' Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, the director's wife, rob a chicken joint to fund a trip down to Florida for the annual collegiate rite of passage. Alien soon sweeps in to spring them from jail, and the group proceeds to tumble down the rabbit hole from there. Pink balaklavas figure prominently -- echoes of Pussy Riot -- as do the kinds of assault rifles currently facing a Senate vote.

"Personally, I had never handled a weapon before," the director's wife told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. "It’s a bit intimidating. It’s heavy, it’s dangerous. But I think that it was important for the film, for the feeling Harmony was trying to evoke. [The film] has a real intensity. It has beauty, but it also has sadness and humor and danger."

For her part, Gomez, who completed her fourth and final season of Disney Channel's Wizards of Waverly Place in 2012, shrugs off all the talk about career recalibration.

"It’s not me wanting to quote-unquote break any image," Gomez said. "It’s just me being a 20-year-old actor. I want to do what I love. The show I did was incredible, and I’m super blessed that I had that opportunity, but this has been a departure."

Korine, too, insists there's no grander scheme at play here, telling THR: "I’ve never thought of my career in terms of strategy. All my movies are like songs or something."

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As for the newest member of the Disney dream factory -- Franco himself -- the actor says the kid-friendly mega studio put no pressure on him to keep the gory details of his latest project under wraps until after Oz the Great and Powerful's $80 million-plus opening weekend.

"No, not at all," Franco said. "They didn’t say one thing about it."

Spring Breakers parties its way into theaters nationwide March 22. Its L.A. and New York bow comes one week prior.


Twitter: @SethAbramovitch