I haven’t seen a longer queue for a Venice press screening this year than the one for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which premieres today in Competition. It makes sense—the film carried with it the promise of wild excitement, some young American stars who attract a lot of attention (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson) plus James Franco, who knows a thing or two about attracting attention as well. The sort of loud mainstream baggage the film brought to the Lido was somewhat awkwardly paired with the long-lasting cinephile appeal Korine has garnered with his cultish body of work (Gummo screened here in Venice in 1997, and he has been throwing audiences off balance ever since).

And Spring Breakers certainly did not disappoint, positioning itself in a fascinating dead zone of expectations. Those who came to see the aforementioned young stars partying and making a mess of their college spring break found exactly that—only cranked up to eleven, speeding past darkness to reach a kind of deranged grotesque. On the other hand, those who came for Korine found the director’s trademark themes bathed in glittering softness, apparently downplayed even in the undeniable aesthetic of excess on display here.

Similarly to this year’s intriguing Project X, the beginning of Spring Breakers seems to tap into a form of "alienated awareness," as it confronts the viewer’s gaze with a spirit of defiance. Opening with a prolonged montage of a beach party—naked bodies, hip-hop, alcohol, etc.—Korine knows that context is everything: he takes his time before getting to the story itself, letting a couple of other introductory sequences accumulate to establish a mood and philosophy. This has always been his main asset, after all; he loves spaces, locations that need to be filled, the feeling of emptiness, the collective void.

With its repetition and estrangement, this sharp collage makes it clear that our four girls hate their college life and are staking everything on the upcoming spring break, hoping to somehow alter their entire existence. The problem, though, is money—they don’t have enough to properly enjoy their trip to Florida. Their solution is, of cours,e an armed robbery (a gem of a tracking shot from the outside of a diner, with the action only intermittently visible through the windows), and the fact that this still seems like reasonable thinking on their part says a lot about what comes later in the movie.

Once the girls get to St. Petersburg, it’s suddenly the James Franco show: he plays a gangsta-hustler-dj with golden teeth, tattoos and dreadlocks, too conceptual and on-the-nose to work in any self-respecting movie. Here, though, it’s all part of the meta-grinding fun. And at moments it actually achieves a higher poignancy, transcending this character's joke of an exterior and finding something truly unsettling about him: as in a piano rendition of a Britney Spears ballad framing a slow-mo montage of drug rips, or a painstakingly long enunciation of things he possesses, from guns to perfume, as the ultimate reclamation of individual identity. Listen to him shouting Look at mah shit! and for a moment you’ll spring free from the alienating cage of this film.

This is a director who’s always been great at using ugliness (urban or personal) as a vehicle for meaning. With Spring Breakers he seems to have updated that notion to include the worst degradation of low-brow residue in contemporary American culture. Everything is pink, red, and glossy; Britney Spears is evoked nostalgically and ironically as a lost icon. Teen starlets are used as bait. Gangsta culture is a cartoonish reminiscence. It’s a bit like a farcical distortion of Drive, if that film's references were from ten minutes ago. And yet, for all its uneven pacing and debatable cunningness, Spring Breakers is an energetic and formally daring effort.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.