'Spring Breakers' (R)

Spring break forever!” is the mantra constantly spouted by Alien (James Franco), a drug-dealing thug whose goal in life is to be bad, always do the wrong thing and make money. Alien sports grill in his mouth, his hair dangles in ugly cornrows and his body is covered with tattoos (including a giant dollar sign on his neck). Above his bed hangs an arsenal of shotguns, pistols, swords and nunchuks. He keeps Scarface playing on a perpetual loop on his TV. And when he sees four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) being sent to jail after getting arrested in a raid, he pays their bail and takes them under his evil wings. He becomes their Svengali figure — a Peter Pan for these lost girls overcome by the craziness of St. Petersburg during spring break. Some of them won’t be able to keep up with him, though.

Spring Breakers is the best and most accessible movie to date by writer-director Harmony Korine, whose brash, defiant attitude displayed in his earlier films (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy) has matured into an earnest, precise artistry (he’s 40 now). Part of the subversive genius of Spring Breakers is the casting of actresses mostly known for Disney channel appearances, suddenly thrust into a milieu of debauchery, drugs and crime. The actresses’ fans, most of them teenagers, are in for a shock if they go in expecting a simple beach comedy. The movie is wild, but not in the ways that you expect, and it’s also surprisingly chaste — you think you see a lot more than you actually do.

Still, High School Musical this is not. Korine is more interested in what’s happening away from the corporate-sponsored wet T-shirt contests and pool parties. He’s drawn to the criminal undertow that rests below, invisible to tourists but well known to the locals. Despite his frightening appearance and obvious insanity, Franco is strangely charming and seductive: You realize fairly soon that he means these girls no harm. He just wants to lure them into his own personal Neverland — turn them into reflections of himself, a pack of honeys for him to run with.

Franco’s performance is so larger-than-life that the four heroines become blanks: Only Gomez, who plays a Catholic girl bluntly named Faith, makes any kind of impression. By the time the girls have donned pink ski masks, Franco is singing a lovely version of Britney Spears’ Everytime and the bullets are flying, Spring Breakers has left behind all the kegs and bongs and entered far stranger, surreal territory. This was a critical movie for Korine — he needed to prove he could make a popular film without compromising his artistic sensibilities — and he succeeds beyond expectations. Having fun has rarely felt this dangerous.

Cast: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco.

Writer-director: Harmony Korine.

Producers: Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Jordan Gertner, Chris Hanley.

An A24 release. Running time: 94 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.