Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Florida Project – a melancholy tale of haves and have nots (QFT 17-23 Nov)

Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project feels like an American version of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake with the setting switched from the bedsits of Newcastle upon Tyne to the budget motels that encircle the Disney World resort in Orlando. Out of work families live in the $35/night rooms, forced to clear out their possessions one night a month and sleep elsewhere to avoid gaining any rights of residency.

This is a tale of the haves and have nots.

Little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) play in walkways of the Magic Castle motel complex whose lurid external decoration looks like it was sponsored by Ribena. Helicopters land in a field nearby, ferrying rich people to Disney.

Six year old Moonee enjoys life, hustling for money to share an icecream with her friends, leading them on adventurous safaris, setting fire to stuff, and leaning over the balcony spitting on the cars below. School-free but not unschooled given these young people’s experience of life and the phrases they pick up and parrot.

Moonee is a have. Her Mum Halley, played by unknown actress Bria Vinaite, is a have not: with little joy in her life, who lost her job and has no regular income, now forced to generate cash to pay her weekly rent by whatever means possible. The tight pair both have stacks of attitude, lip and sass. Living in the shadow of Mickey Mouse’s magical kingdom, watching the firework display from the outside of the fence is as close as their disposable income will take them to the theme park of dreams.

The manager of “the purple place” acts as a father figure to the families, holding them to the rules but going out of his way to protect them from those who would seek to exploit their vulnerabilities. Yet Bobby, played with a deftness that never raises the audience’s hackles by Willem Dafoe, turns out to be no more free to act than his debt-ridden customers: he also has a boss to whom he is accountable.

The younger generation lead this film, unlike Moonlight from earlier this year which watched a lad called Chiron grow up with ambiguous parenting. The camera often remains level with their six year old perspective. The low-level handheld camerawork following the cast is contrasted with an occasional sequence of locked off static shots that allow the protagonists to walk fully across the vista, creating a very distinctive style.

The Florida Project could easily be shortened. I found much of the 111 minute film quite underwhelming. About the first 105 minutes of it. Many of the scenes with children and adults seem to have been ad-libbed. Rather than work through a linear plot, the scenes gently show how the children and their parents spend their days, show friendships forming and falling apart, and build up a picture of the desperation and destitution that many of them face.

At first it’s the kids’ behaviour that throws Halley into conflict with another parent. But soon it is her own pursuit of an old but reliable way of earning money that leads to a violent attack and marks the film’s catastrophic dénouement. Little upbeat Moonee reaches her limit and finally exposes less happy emotions.

For me, the final scene before the credits rescued The Florida Project.

The tears in my eyes were unbidden and a total shock. I sat watching the preview screening in the middle of the afternoon in a state of nonchalance, wondering whether this was really as poignant a study of American homelessness as it should be. There was surely a more dramatic way that writer/director/editor/producer Sean Baker could have hammered home the issues around hidden homelessness?

But the subdued music and the sight of two children escaping into a promised land – a ‘paradise’ whose lustre quickly fades for most visitors – was worth the wait. What they have in terms of attitude and resilience is far more important than the thrill-seeking have nots they are now rubbing shoulders with.

Brooklynn Prince (Mooney) delivers an engaging performance for one so young, and this surely won’t be the last time we see Bria Vinaite (her Mum) on screen given the unpretentious way she shifted through emotions and inhabited the depressed but creative character.

Sean Baker’s hands-on control of nearly every aspect of this film has crafted an unusual and distinctive movie that feels very authentic; fictional yet reflecting the grim reality of a section of society trapped and invisible.

The Florida Project is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre from 17 November until 23 November.

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