Monday, January 15, 2018

The Florida Project (2017)

Following my usual procedures—call it laziness if you must—I went into The Florida Project blind. I had seen director and cowriter Sean Baker's Tangerine but didn't make the association until I looked it up later. The Florida Project is similarly colorful, though less of that is in-camera (in-phone, to be precise) and more of it is by way of the painted landscape of a motel and strip mall district in central Florida's Orlando. It's a thoroughly professional production this time, more or less. The seamy Orlando neighborhood abuts and serves the tourist trade at Disney World—preys on it actually, more like, because there's a lot of poverty and desperation at the shitty little purple motel that provides the place setting. Also like Tangerine you spend a lot of the movie wondering where it's headed, because it doesn't seem to be headed anywhere. But Baker coaches a memorable performance out of the 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, the overly sugared-up daughter of Halley (Bria Vinaite), a part-time prostitute and full-time hustler, who is probably not even 25 yet. Yes, it's America's famous shithole underside, in the stinking flesh—American poverty porn (American Honey had some of it too, and Spring Breakers and Harmony Korine more generally reek of it). Halley is foul-mouthed and self-destructive—at strategic points she reminded me uncannily of Courtney Love. Willem Dafoe, the only recognizable star here, has a role as the motel manager and brings a kind of useful stillness and gravity to the picture. But Moonee and the kids she hangs out with and serves as a bad influence on—Scootie, Jancy, some anonymous others—are the main characters here. They hang out and make a lot of trouble, with limited adult supervision. They vandalize, shoplift, and commit other petty crimes—one, at least, an incidental plot point, is much more than petty. They screech a lot. They can be extraordinarily cruel to one another and especially to adults. For about the first hour of the movie I hated them and it. But then their very pure kidness started to come out and win me over—the flashes of vulnerability, and clarity, the highs of hilarity, the insane mood swings. The gnawing fear of abandonment. The ravages of sugar. I ended up liking Moonee and this movie very much as it wound inexorably toward an obvious fate. As if to counteract that, The Florida Project serves up a stunningly pointless finish. You might have thought you can see what's coming, but you can't. I respect Baker for trying it, but it's so jarring and discontinuous that the movie would probably have been a little better if he had just sucked it up and finished it off conventionally. I give Baker full credit for Prince's performance—it's coached and rehearsed to some degree, and likely required a lot of patience to get, but it's remarkable and the best thing about the movie.

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