Film, Reviews, Screen

The Florida Project review: moving drama explores the concrete backyards of impoverished Americans

| |

What is the equivalent of a backyard, for a person who doesn’t have one? I found myself in deep contemplation of this question, which I came to identify as a reflection of my own privilege, after watching The Florida Project – the director Sean Baker’s very fine, very moving drama that evokes (a lot more than most films) a striking sense of place. Baker’s previous film Tangerine was famously shot on iPhones, also presenting crummy locations in visually tantalising ways: a pop verité, or candy-coloured Skid Row.

Both films have the kind of settings one might call ‘wrong side of the tracks’ or ‘not the sort you put on brochures’. They are beautiful, in a concrete playground kind of way, or at the very least they are beautifully photographed. Tangerine with a throbbing, spunky, streetside style befitting its principal subjects: a couple of hot-headed transgender sex workers. Like its characters, the film’s aesthetic has attitude.

The opening scenes in The Florida Project follow three young children – Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley), (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) – with Baker’s tone softening to reflect their view of the world. The look and feel of the film is large and open, even when it is in confined spaces. And the colours are gorgeous and bright, like an ice cream, even when the settings are trashy – such as a factory outlet for cheap Disney merch, and a crappy motel swimming pool where the water is nevertheless a shimmering aqua.

The cheeky, Little Rascals-like misadventures of the kids becomes less of a storytelling priority than the day-to-day life of Moonee, who is six, and her rough-as-guts single mother Halley (an excellent and intense Bria Vinaite). They live in a cut-rate motel called The Magic Castle, not far from Disney World, where a collection of homeless or near-homeless people scrounge together the nightly rate, many of them casual workers or in low-paying service industry jobs.

This tumble-down place, with its pale purple paint job and ironic name, is managed by the fundamentally decent Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who must maintain a firm attitude towards his impoverished guests. Every once in a while, displaced out-of-towners arrive and, looking like they’ve witnessed visions of their own death, realise they’ve made a grave mistake: they intended to make a booking at Disney World, not this terrible place on the outskirts of civilised society.

The Florida Project presents a reverse-Spielberg view of being a kid. No alien buddies, cuddly friends or otherworldly adventures. But there is still magic.

Baker, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Bergoch, draws a parallel for post GFC, Trump-era America: the privilege of being disappointed by an erroneous holiday booking, versus the poverty of day-to-day life when you’re down and out.

The geography of the film is important to this polemic, because again there is a gruesome contrast: kids who are homeless, or near-homeless, living almost literally in the shadows of a destination marketed as the happiest place on earth. It might have been a crude comparison if The Florida Project didn’t work independently of its politics; if it didn’t invest so thoughtfully in its characters, and the faultless performances of the actors who portray them.

Director Ben Zeitlin’s magical realism-infused tear jerker Beasts of the Southern Wild, which also follows a poor six-year-old girl, was widely accused of being ‘poverty porn’. Whether or not that label is just, applying it is unquestionably an effective management and critical distancing of one’s emotions: condescending to the filmmakers, while accusing them of condescending to their subjects. In this day and age, for good reasons, artists cannot insulate themselves against such criticisms by claiming to have good intentions.

The visual properties of The Florida Project – those clean crisp images, the lovely colours – are almost entirely the reason Baker has avoided (largely: there will always be complaining parties) having his work brandished in such a way; also to genuinely avoid poverty porn in the first place. Had the film been presented in washed-out shaky cam, it would have been a different story. When I contemplate the backyard in the house I grew up in, my memories are in colour: the chiseled red paint on the basketball ring; the rusty grey gate; the greenness of the grass.

If you don’t or didn’t have a backyard, Baker appears to be saying, childhood continues anyway – which of course is true. The Florida Project presents a reverse-Spielberg view of being a kid. No alien buddies, cuddly friends or otherworldly adventures. But there is still magic, even in the shittiest of locations, because magic is subjective and a child’s view of it is relative. When the child grows up, bitterness and irony emerge. It is almost as if this film, which is spirited and tender but also bitter and ironic, has been directed by an older version of one of its young characters.

The Florida Project will be released on December 21

2 responses to “The Florida Project review: moving drama explores the concrete backyards of impoverished Americans

  1. This review seems to draw more from the self-congratulatory production notes supplied than from the actual film.
    Wider research would reveal that this is one of the most walked-out of films ever. Being one of that substantial under-whelmed number myself, it is not fair to ‘review’ the film, however my impressions of the first 45 excruciating minutes were:
    A slapdash and unengaging portrait of life on the fringe.
    Exploitative of the young actors, egging them on to behave badly.
    A very low ‘production values’ condescension to welfare recipients / strugglers / battlers.
    Lots of cigarettes, foul language, bratty kids and no plot. Pointless.
    A hands down walk-out for mine.
    1/2 a star

  2. This film reflects the lives of ‘The Deplorables’ in ‘The Rust Belt’ of the ‘Flyover States’ who voted for Donald Trump instead of the despised ‘Hillary (I can’t understand why I lost) Clinton’.

    Here is a clip you probably won’t watch; it runs through the successes of the U.S. President last year…

    Mr.Trump may be coming to the rescue of the forgotten people represented in this film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *