Toronto International Film Festival 2012 | At Any Price, The Paperboy, Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers

Notwithstanding the star's best efforts, Toronto 2012 will not be remembered as the fest in which Zac Efron took his career to the next level. Efron plays a race-car-driving playboy in At Any Price, an Iowa-set drama from Ramin Bahrani, who made the excellent Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. At Any Price is the director's most mainstream effort to date, but the soapy melodramatics don't suit him, to put it mildly. The movie combines a Last Picture Show–style portrait of a family of farmers struggling to adapt to modern times with an undigested tract on the dangers genetic patents pose to traditional agriculture. As Efron's book-cooking dad, Dennis Quaid is so earnest, it's cringeworthy.

Efron also appears in the Cannes scandal The Paperboy, which has resurfaced here after causing a sensation on the Croisette in May—mainly because of a scene in which Nicole Kidman, looking like a drag-queen version of herself, urinates on her boyish costar. (He's been stung by a jellyfish; she's just trying to help him out.) Back when it was competing for the Palme d'Or, Precious director Lee Daniels's adaptation of Pete Dexter's acclaimed novel may have looked like a laughable disaster. But now that we're primed for a camp classic, the film just seems dire—poorly paced, uninterested in developing its mystery plot, filled with sophomoric shock effects and overwrought performances. Trudging through Florida swampland, the cast includes Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray and a grating John Cusack, as an accused murderer who may or may not have gotten a bad rap.

Daniels's movie seems designed to induce nausea, though as is often the case, the festival offered the perfect palliative. Efron's High School Musical costar Vanessa Hudgens takes a wilder trip to to the Sunshine State in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which in its own head-over-toilet way is a much more mature film than The Paperboy.

Hudgens—along with fellow Disney Channel/ABC Family alums Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson, as well as the director's wife, Rachel Korine—plays part of a quartet of religious college students preparing for spring vacation. Unable to afford the trip to St. Petersburg, Florida, the women rob a chicken restaurant, the better to fund their week of binge drinking, bikini headstands, recreational narcotics and less-than-forthcoming calls to grandma. At first resembling Alexandre Aja's Piranha remake without the man-eating fish, the party scenes are initially just an excuse for Korine (Gummo, Trash Humpers) to indulge his taste for jiggling flesh. But when the four get bailed out of jail by James Franco's metal-toothed drug dealer (license plate: "BALL R"), the fun really begins.

The saddest and most impressive thing one might say about Spring Breakers is that nothing in it seems entirely implausible; the events of the movie would require a dangerous combination of stupidity, money and peer pressure, but they do have a ripped-from-the-tabloids quality. The film's Girls Gone Wild aimlessness masks a tightly coiled plot. Once neon-pink ski masks come into the picture, it's hard not to feel as if you're watching a future generation's Risky Business.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)