Four young women (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine) go to Florida for spring break. Funding the trip involves three of them -- Gomez is a nominally Christian good girl -- robbing a restaurant with squirt guns and rubber mallets. Full of money, they set themselves in the direction of fun. Typical debauched mayhem is in full swing by the time they arrive and when they find themselves arrested and jailed for being too close to some drug action, a rapper/drug dealer/gun enthusiast (James Franco, sleepy smile barely masking his menace) bails them out and introduces them to a distinctly more dangerous existence. "Scarface on repeat!" he jabbers in a monologue about his many crime-bro possessions, but that's not merely gangster posturing, it's how he learned his trade. He practiced, probably in front of a TV.
It's also the way director Harmony Korine's four novice lady-criminals have learned their way through life. They ignore college lectures about The Greatest Generation, choosing instead to spend their pre-spring break days and nights fantasizing about the big party that will change their existence and usher them into excitement or transcendence. They slink around like strippers, rubbing up on each other like women in less ambitious exploitation films, as if practicing for the performance of sex they'll enact for the college boys on the beach. So even though watching Vanessa Hudgens take an unwieldy flamethrower to her High School Musical image might be the reason you're going to see this, what you'll actually witness is the drug-warped spectacle of Korine dismantling adolescent systems of receiving and acting on cultural information. It's an art film, but one posing as a sleazy how-to lesson in robbing, killing, cocaining and backin' up dat ass.
If that's too much thought to put into it, then consider it like this: coming off his last blast of insanity, the spaz-attack Americana-jam Trash Humpers, Korine has relocated his horny, screeching protagonists from a dead-end small town to a corporately sponsored beach orgy. The people are younger, prettier and much more naked, grinding in slow-motion to Skrillex, making the same crotch-thrusting motions as the masked troublemakers of that earlier film. Instead of garbage bins, though, they're mock-humping one another on the beach, raining down beer into girls' mouths, simulating urination, inhaling drugs off naked bodies. The stage has changed but the mindless carnal energy in the pursuit of awesomeness is exactly the same.
The dreamy narrative jumps back and forth, flashing on words and deeds of five minutes or five days ago, cutting to the next moment's aftermath before that moment even comes to pass. Big Bad Franco's involvement with the girls shifts gears, from terrifyingly funny to tenderly moronic. Dialogue repetition and loops of the same nude post-teens gyrating on the sand become a sort of mantra, Godard-lifted moves highlighting the ways in which young people learn how to be young.
It all goes wrong, of course. A wild party with no moment of reckoning wouldn't make for much of a story. But when the promise of spring break crumbles for a couple of the young women, the lesson isn't "Be Good." That's because it isn't so much a movie about freedom or rule-breaking as it is about every generation's conformity to overwhelming pressure, about how human behavior is learned from repeated exposure to really dumb, low-level stuff and idiotic mass narratives of banal experience. It's all in your face all the time: ideas about happiness and rebellion, sexuality and danger, the way to be hot and ecstatic or hot and bad, ready to be simulated and rehearsed until the feeling you're looking for hits you.
And because this is Korine's everything-at-once show, the most exciting sequence in the film involves the women, pink-ski-masked and indulging in the extreme adult badness they've been dreaming about, set to a sweet Britney Spears ballad popular during their 2004 girlhood. It's the moment when their past crashes into their present and it's hilarious, horrific and dissonant. They'll sort out their feelings about it later, after the party. Or not.