Spring Breakers, writer/director Harmony Korine's lurid and violent fever dream, begins with a visual and aural blast. Skrillex's alternately dreamy and grinding dubstep anthem "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" blares crisply over shots of the monsters and sprites of Spring Break drinking and flailing, bare breasts bouncing in slow motion, liquor flowing in ominous waterfalls. The colors are bright and saturated, skin golden-orange, bikinis and trunks day-glo fluorescent. It's an arresting display of hedonism, and it's hard to tell if Korine is praising the carefree kids' revelry or condemning their wicked writhing. It's grotesque in a way, but it's also alluring; if not exactly sexy, it's certainly an effectively tantalizing image of youthful indulgence. The same holds true for the rest of the film, though Korine steers pretty quickly toward darker territory.

Though it's not much of a narrative, Spring Breakers chiefly concerns four college girlfriends who are desperate to flee boring school life for the beaches of Florida. In murmuring speech, our story's ostensible heroine Faith (Selena Gomez) says that the trip is about escaping, about breaking out of the humdrum doldrums of their easy, passive lives and really experiencing something. That she's using all this elevated language to talk about some sleazy beach in south Florida is a joke, I'm fairly sure, but Korine doesn't take any time to wink at us, he offers few hints as to his intentions. Determined but broke, the girls must figure out how to fund their dream vacation. Though Faith is a bored-ish good girl who goes to prayer meetings, she's childhood friends with three rowdy, stringy-haired sex-kittens who, like underpanted sirens, are calling Faith into the dark. The girls — Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the director) — decide suddenly that the best way to get the money is through robbing the local chicken shack. Have they done something like this before? It doesn't seem so, but they easily steal a professor's car anyway and loudly relieve the chicken place of its money. It's clear that the girls are a little wacked, taking a bit too much pleasure in shoving black-painted waterguns in people's faces and screaming violent threats. The actresses are obviously having fun with this too; in Benson and Hudgens's cases, the opportunity to break out of the relative innocence of teen-programming is seized with giggling, squealing avidity. They'll have more and worse to giggle about by picture's end.

When the girls get to Florida, St. Petersburg specifically, Korine settles into a lilting, lyrical rhythm. Images and bits of dialogue are elliptical, looping back on themselves as the camera swirls and wanders. The cinematography, by Enter the Void's Benoît Debie, is gorgeous; washed in glowing color, swooning at the Florida sunsets and fuzzy neon of commercial strip America. Korine has made a decidedly beautiful-looking film here, presumably in the hopes of offsetting, or commenting on, the ugliness that creeps into the story. Underscoring the dreamlike images — of parties, of a late-night dip in a swimming pool, of the bikini-clad girls lounging outside of a convenience store — are composer Cliff Martinez's chiaroscuro sighs and hums, his typically pulsating music here taking on an ethereal air. Stretches of the film are utterly hypnotizing, lulling us into a stonedness that deadens us to the sordidness and violence to come. We've seen this kind of lush depravity in many a film recently, maybe most notably in Drive, which also featured a score by Martinez.

Spring Breakers is ultimately not quite as crunchingly violent a movie as that grim odyssey, but it throbs with a sexual menace that feels just as dangerous. When the police break up a motel party full of boobs and cocaine, the four girls are arrested and dragged off to jail -- in nothing but bikinis, of course. They're told by a judge that they can either pay a fine or spend two more days in the clink. (Un)luckily for them, they were partying with two leering, low-life twins (played by the real-life leering, low-life ATL Twins) who are lackeys of one Alien, a grill-toothed, corn-rowed rapper/gangster played with committed low-rent swagger by James Franco. Sensing an opportunity to exploit these girls for something, Alien bails them out. They are of course indebted to him, but really, the girls, well three of them at least, would be interested in him anyway, sleazy and dangerous and different as he is. Franco plays Alien with a weird mix of hip-hop 'hood purr and Southern twang, and while the results are sometimes captivatingly credible in their strangeness, he maybe too occasionally sounds simply like James Franco goofily f-cking around. I'm sure there was some of that annoying meta-irony in play on set, but I also believed Franco far more in this role than I did in Oz the Great and Powerful. Here his innate oiliness, his toothy grin that suggests a hidden meanness, is far better employed.

Alien soon has the girls, well three of them at least, staging flashy robberies and wielding big weapons with languid seductiveness. Korine films the girls' descent into beyond-bad-girl territory with a spiraling mood of madness, the surreality ever-heightening until everything is a bright-hued fantasy. In one scene, the girls wear pink ski masks and dance with large guns while Alien plays a Britney Spears song, the tinkling "Everytime," on a white poolside piano. The actual track soon kicks in and the foursome sways and dances, the sky a heavenly ochre, flecked with fuchsia and indigo. It's bizarre and beautiful and completely ludicrous. Korine is taking inspiration from Sofia Coppola and even Terrence Malick in Spring Breakers, but he seems at times to also be mocking all that soaring, swirling profundity. Here is a story about some horny college girls who become small-time Florida criminals for one strange week, told in the vernacular of far artier fare. It's an interesting tweak, but it creates an irksome sensation of never being quite sure how seriously we should be taking the whole thing.

Obviously one of the biggest curiosities of the film is that Korine has cast Benson, Gomez and Hudgens. The latter two are Disney stars, one a wizard of Waverly Place the other a High School Musical queen, while Benson stars on ABC Family's teen thriller Pretty Little Liars. So it's jarring, upsetting for some perhaps, to see them in this hypersexualized, druggy, depraved milieu. (And to see two of them, briefly, in the nude.) It's a trick, a gimmick, but it occasionally pays off. The actresses are game — perhaps too game at times — and sell their bored adolescent nihilism fairly successfully. Benson in particular has a glimmer of something more knowing and mature dancing in her eyes. I'm eager to see her take on some more grownup roles, hopefully ones that don't feel quite so much like a baptism by Bacardi 151-fueled fire. There might be something there. Gomez earns sympathy as the good girl (or at least better girl) of the group, and Hudgens is at least an expressive physical performer (not so much with dialogue), but no one is really given that much to do. A few dreamy voice overs, one or two minor freakouts, and that's about it. Though, a scene in which two of the girls force Franco to fellate a pistol marks one of really only two moments in the film when I was struck with a patronizing feeling of "Oh, ladies, are you sure you want to be doing this?" Otherwise the stunt lands pretty smoothly, curiously energizing as it is to see these previously sheltered young things waving guns around in scuzzy, skeezy paradise. The discordancy of the casting turns out of to be the film's cleverest trick -- if not inspired, definitely thoughtful in its own peculiar way.

That said, I'm honestly still not sure what to make of the film. Is it lush and titillating and mesmerizing? Absolutely. But it's also slow and meandering in parts, and overly invested in shock value throughout. Ultimately I suppose Korine's point was to tell a tale of girls gone past wild, to rattle our perceptions of what's really going on when the kids of today party by way of a grungy fable. But that feels like an oddly dated message, partly because Korine already told us all about this, in more documentarian fashion, when he wrote Kids eighteen years ago. In the years since, the raunchy bacchanal that is Spring Break has been made evident in myriad MTV specials and documentaries and, well, Girls Gone Wild tapes. Adding the extra dimension of seedy violence to the tale is something new, I suppose, but by the film's violent climax, featuring girls in bikinis operatically laying waste to a house full of people, I'd lost my way. What were we talking about again? Were we talking about anything? Or was this just a lovely-looking smudge of base girlsploitation? None of the rich artistry really added up to anything. Spring Breakers is an interesting trip to a pretty place, but when I got home I still wasn't sure why I'd gone there.