The Kids Aren’t Alright: Harmony Korine Hits a Pop-Culture Vein With Spring Breakers

James Franco gives good gun

The cast of 'Spring Breakers.'

The cast of ‘Spring Breakers.’

In 1993, a 19-year-old New York skateboarder spent three weeks writing a script for an art house flick that swiftly became a classic. Harmony Korine—a Washington Square Park hoodrat by way of Tennessee—collaborated with photographer Larry Clark to create Kids (released in 1995), a dismally fatalistic version of the ’90s featuring delinquent New York teens, AIDS and a dewy, just-discovered Chloë Sevigny. With its non-actors not acting, and dialogue that seemed entirely improvised (and was barely audible), the film hit just the right note for the burgeoning mumblecore movement.

Eighteen years after the cautionary tale of Kids, Mr. Korine, now 40, is still focused on teenagers misbehaving, but this latest creation could be Kids’s polar opposite: Spring Breakers, the party film to top all party films. The techno-pop psychedelia is equal parts Grand Theft Auto, Scarface, Bonnie & Clyde and a D.A.R.E. video. Spring Breakers is all about the paradox of its own title, with that magic term conjuring either images of young, carefree hardbodies dancing with friends on the beach, or drugs, date rape and a night spent in a drunk tank. “I never went to spring break in high school,” Mr. Korine admitted to The Observer, so maybe this film is making up for lost time.

Spring Breakers revels in its own cognitive dissonance: it was the worst spring break, it was the best spring break. It’s the story of a drug dealer coercing troubled girls into his cocaine-dusted lair, but it may also be one of the greatest portrayals of polyamory in cinematic history. It’s a teenage dream that takes its final bow in a hail of bullets and blood, a sequence that will keep parents awake at night while their hormonal offspring are partying in St. Petersburg.

Like Mr. Korine’s past work, Spring Breakers is hallucinatory and repetitive; unlike his previous films, it happens to contain a linear narrative, at least three compelling characters, and a plot underscored by a Skrillex/Britney Spears-laced soundtrack that keeps the pace breakneck rather than glacial. (For anyone who tried the audio nightmare of his 2009 film Trash Humpers, you’ll know what we mean.)

“I’ve always worked from the image to the story,” Mr. Korine told The Observer. “Like I create an image in my mind and then just write a story around it.” If you’ve never read Mr. Korine’s book of prose tableaux, A Crack Up at the Race Riots, you might not understand how intense and lush these singular mental snapshots can be. (Luckily, the out-of-print book is being rereleased in April.) Crack Up is less of a novel and more of a stream-of-consciousness listicle of strange mise en scènes, such as one passage that just reads:

7. Three short Chinese men in business suits are wading in a pond. They are all three laughing and smiling. Their pants are rolled up to their knees. The man in the middle is holding a protest sign that reads, “Abortion is Murder.”

Mr. Korine, who wrote and directed Spring Breakers, came up with his latest film in a similar fashion. “I’d been collecting spring break imagery for a couple of years, just all that teenage Florida debauchery,” he said in his distinctive Southern twang. “And one night I was home, and I think I was looking at a Young Buck album cover—you know, with the ski mask on, and the gold or diamond grill—when I had this image of pretty girls on a beach. They were in bikinis, and they were thugged out in pink ski masks with unicorn patches on them, and they were robbing fat tourists.”

That pretty much sums up the plot of Spring Breakers.

As for casting, Mr. Korine has given James Franco the role of his lifetime, or at least one that is finally interesting to both the actor and his audience. As that Young Buck album cover come to life, Mr. Franco is a creepily cornrowed, grill-grinning townie-cum-rapper-cum-drugs and arms dealer named Alien who swaggers into the lives of four seemingly fresh-faced, nubile coeds and makes like the Big Bad Wolf—only to have the tables turned when the girls reveal their dark side.

Mr. Korine’s directorial style favors a collaborative, laissez-faire environment, which can be a double-edged sword for first-time actors working off sparse treatments. (Though perhaps that’s why Mr. Korine can write the scripts so quickly; Spring Breakers was done in “a couple of days” while he was staying in a hotel.) This approach has resulted in hit-or-miss performances in the past, but becomes a work of art in Spring Breakers, notably in a scene in which the girls force Alien to suck on a loaded gun in his own home, humiliating him further by treating it as a strap-on. Things get even more bizarre and uncomfortable when the dealer begins to enjoy himself, deep-throating his own semi-automatic.

“That scene was crazy,” Mr. Korine said. “I had written it up to a point, where the girls were supposed to rob him, or pretend to rob him and freak him out.”

During rehearsals, the director realized how sexual the guns looked in these girls’ hands, and had them stick one in Mr. Franco’s mouth to emasculate him. The actor has never been one to step down from a challenge—in fact, he’s more apt to create one, as we saw recently on Colbert when he smugly attempted to one-up the faux-host in a Lord of the Rings trivia contest only to be handily nerd-stomped. So he upped the ante.

“Franco looked at me and said, ‘You know, Alien should be getting turned on by this.’ And I was like, ‘Go for it,’” Mr. Korine recalled. “The improvisation process is always a little bit weird.”

If we didn’t know any better from this brightly blazing blitzkrieg bacchanal—which, in addition to Mr. Franco, stars two very famous post-tween Disney stars (Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens)—we’d think Mr. Korine was growing up. Spring Breakers is very weird, but not in that Appalachian, semi-Lynchian, barely watchable way that we expect from the man who once told David Letterman that two of his houses burned down and the only thing that was left was a photograph of of him smoking crack with O.D.B. It’s not, in other words, weird the way that his 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy is weird. It’s hyper-techno-pop weird. It’s “That girl from High School Musical singing Britney Spears’s ‘Everytime’ while shooting an AK-47 into the sky” weird. It’s also cool and buzzy: a lot of people will want to see Spring Breakers for the famous cast alone. And that is just so un-Korine, who has never used A-listers—or even nameable actors—if he can get some real people to “act” for free.

Then again, it was Mr. Franco—that human bridge from the land of Oz and pop culture to the leather-bound shores of BDSM kink—who was able to make the film a reality. According to Mr. Korine, he had thought of the actor/artist/novelist/poet/Nascar grand marshal before even writing the screenplay. He jotted down some notes about the character and faxed them over to Mr. Franco, a friend of several years whom he had once “worked with on a project.” (That’s hardly a credential, given that Mr. Franco has “worked on” so many side projects and collaborations that you get the sense they are his version of drunken one-night stands.)

Mr. Franco “immediately” said yes, so Mr. Korine rushed back to the hotel and banged out his Spring Breakers script. And then, quickly, the girls fell into place: Justin Bieber’s now-ex-girlfriend, Ms. Gomez, was pulled in by her mother-slash-manager, a fan of Mr. Korine; Ms. Hudgens wanted to work with Mr. Franco; Pretty Little Liars actress Ashley Benson wanted a feature.

As for 26-year-old Rachel Korine, she is the director’s wife.

dgrant@observer.com