Just before the candy-colored apocalypse comes to Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” you hear the peaceable murmurings of a beach, of lapping water, calling gulls and playing children.

Movie review

3 1/2 (out of five stars)

Director: Harmony Korine

Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco and Gucci Mane

Rated: R for gun violence and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

They’re nice, these sounds of summer, promises of carefree, youthful pursuits like building sand castles and shrieking at waves. The first image of what looks like a beach party keeps the happy vibe going. Dozens, hundreds of gyrating, dancing young women and men are basking in the honeyed light — as the beat goes on and the smiles sour into sneers — although it becomes evident that they’re also marinating in a tsunami of beer.

Welcome to the party, dude, Korine seems to be saying (or is he snickering?), now sit back, relax and enjoy the show. He to be proves an excellent ringmaster and a crafty one, too. In “Spring Breakers,” he bores into a contested, deeply American topic — the pursuit of happiness taken to nihilistic extremes — but turns his exploration into such a gonzo, outrageously funny party that it takes awhile to appreciate that this is more of a horror film than a comedy.

If the laughter at times catches in your throat, well, that’s part of the queasy, transfixing experience that is “Spring Breakers.” Korine presents a seductive female quartet that includes two former Disney teen queens, Selena Gomez (as Faith) and Vanessa Hudgens (Candy), along with Ashley Benson (Brit) and his wife, Rachel Korine (Cotty).

Introduced shortly after the opening bacchanal, the four portray students at a nondescript school somewhere warm that’s ornamented with palm trees and bored young people smoking weed, hanging out, sometimes reading and even attending classes.

Over a number of dreamy, elliptical scenes that slide from day to night and back, it emerges that the four friends want to go on spring break but don’t have enough cash. While Faith prays on her problems, the other three opt for a more direct approach: armed with squirt guns and a lady-size sledgehammer, they go full-on gangsta and rob a restaurant.

“Pretend it’s a video game,” one giggles. “Act like it’s a movie.” So they do.

There are consequences of a kind, but first: paaarty! The four later take off for spring break in St. Petersburg, Fla. There they join an invading army that seemingly has commandeered every inch of sand, surf and hotel. From rooms and halls, these tanned, groomed paragons of American youth and orthodontics spill onto balconies and into pools, laughing and yelling as they drink, snort, dance, thrash and jump, jump, jump up, moving together like a pulsing organism. They’re beautiful and monstrous, enthralling and repellent. For those who don’t belong to their tribe, they may be exotic, worrisome, frightening or representatives of the decline of the West in hot-pink bikinis.

Just kids or children of the damned? Take your pick. Harmony Korine, a pasticheur and cultural vulgarian (part dada, part European art cinema, part MTV’s “Jackass”), isn’t interested in making up your mind for you. Instead he tosses out his ideas like puzzle pieces and lets you see how or if they fit. The women want to go on spring break and want to have fun, and he seems to want the same. He splashes on the gorgeous, gaudy color and bends the story line, adding brief flash-forwards and flashbacks that make it seem as if time were incessantly skipping forward and backward, almost swirling. Gestures, bits of dialogue and moody moments are repeated like old songs, like dreams, rituals and highlight reels.

Korine clearly digs frolicking with his visiting celebrities, and the actresses seem happy to do things that would make Uncle Walt spin in his grave. They’re almost giddy, at least at first, and given that both Gomez and Hudgens have put in time working for Disney, it’s no wonder that they cut loose. In “Spring Breakers,” they have the chance to simulate the behavior that feeds the tabloids without the humiliations and career-crushing price paid by the likes of Lindsay Lohan. The female stars of “Spring Breakers” get to shoot guns and hang out with James Franco.

The fantastic Franco, wearing grillz and long cornrows, rolls up with guns and a white Camaro convertible with red rims. His character, a rapper from “St. Pete” called Alien, is a hustler, dealer and self-anointed gangsta. He walks the bad-boy walk and talks the talk, but he’s strictly thug lite. For the women, he becomes something of a sleazy Prince Charming — not all the princesses are equally charmed — in a story that has metamorphosed into a feverish fairy tale. “Look at all my” stuff, he boasts, almost self-amazed, in a startling, deliriously funny riff on “The Great Gatsby” — except that instead of throwing shirts in the air he’s brandishing machine guns, bricks of dope, wads of cash and animal-print shorts.

Alien’s masquerade as well as his feud with a black gangster brings the film back to an earlier scene that indicates Korine has more on his mind than surface shocks. Brit and Candy are sitting in a class, not paying attention to their history lesson. At that point, they haven’t yet pretended to be gangstas and robbed the restaurant, playing thugs without the burden, without the history, without the cost.

When Korine loops back to the crime, he takes you inside so you can see the terrified customers cowering as Brit and Candy smash up the place, waving their “weapons.” The squirt guns are fakes, but both the women’s pleasure and the rage that pumps through the scene and increasingly through the film — feeding the excesses, the posturing and escalating violence like a poisoned river — feel eerily real, familiar and very American.