' ' Cinema Romantico: The Florida Project

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Florida Project

There comes a point for every child when the meanness of the world is unmasked. This is not graduating from adolescence to adulthood. No, it’s an almost ineffable sensation when your warm, protective cocoon just suddenly melts and your innocence gives way to sentience. Six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) stands on this precipice of this unmasking in “The Florida Project.” And writer/director Sean Baker undergirds this sensation with his setting in the shabby shadow of Walt Disney World®, the Magic Castle Inn and Suites, painted a purple stucco that one moment appears tacky and the next moment takes your breath away, not unlike the Florida sky itself which sometimes stretches into a hopeful infinity and other times turns dark and dumps rain. One moment finds Moonee and her mom dancing in the rain just as the clouds break and sunshine peeks through, emblemizing how “The Florida Project” exists in dichotomy, performing an intricate dance between realism and fantasy.

“The Florida Project” opens with a shot of Moonee and her pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) sitting against a Magic Castle wall. The camera is not looking down but straight at them, meeting them at their level, a crucial delineation, and it remains there for much of the movie, often following along just behind them as they traipse through their world of central Florida interconnected parking lots. The kid actors never feel coached, mostly allowed to exist on their own terms, rambunctious bordering on obnoxious. When Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle manager tells them to stay off a picnic table, the camera makes sure to catch sight of the kids over his shoulder, still on the picnic table. They do as they please.

Moonee and her small circle of little rascals are presented less with inner lives than attitudes and behaviors impressed upon them by their immediate surroundings. Indeed, if Scooty is initially just as hell-raising as Moonee, he is eventually moved out of the picture when he crosses a line and his mother (Mela Murder) decides to remove him full-stop from Moonee’s orbit. Moonee, on the other hand, is shaped entirely by her own mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who is unemployed, affording the weekly rent by shilling wholesale perfume to idiot tourists, and, in myriad scenes swerving from full-throated love to frightening neglect, treats her little girl more like a little sister.

An early scene finds Halley arguing with an unemployment officer, a shot that Baker sets with mom in the foreground and daughter in the background, where you can essentially see Halley’s bad language and resistance to authority sort of intrinsically washing over Moonee, even as Moonee, playing with her dolls, tries to blot it out. You see that even more acutely later, when Halley has turned to more nefarious means to make rent, as Moonee plays in the bath. When she is interrupted, she closes the bathtub curtain without even looking up, almost as if she is throwing the mask back on when the world tries to pull it back, refusing to have her fantasy encroached upon, one of the many moments when the movie’s fantastical overtones suggest something more ominous.

The movie might have tilted too far into the fantastical had it shut itself off completely to its environment’s realities, but Baker balances the illusory with Bobby, an omnipresent walkie talkie jutting out of the back pocket of his paint-splattered jeans and cheap chord sunglasses dangling around his deck, a triumph of costume design merging with a finely calibrated performance by Dafoe. The character has virtually no explicated backstory, but Dafoe fills him out anyway, never more than a little moment he shares with the motel’s owner (Karren Karagulian) who gives instructions about writing and posting a note regarding rugs and towels slung over railings. As he does, Dafoe has Bobby sort of quicken his pace to keep up, and clarify where he wants the note in an eager to please kind of voice. He, unlike Halley, might have a steady job, but in that flash, you see how he has to hustle to keep it.

Though one spectacular shot finds the camera looking up at him positioned beneath a seemingly never-ending sky in the aftermath of turning the tenets’ power back on, framing him like the Magic Castle’s king, basking in half-sincere, half-mock applause, his presence also affords a peek behind the curtain, at bed bugs and rundown washers and dryers. “I’ll fix those,” he says at one point, before affixing it with a half-hearted, “at the end of the week.” The cursory shot where he smokes a cigarette at night exudes meaning because it feels like a restorative stolen moment. And yet, Dafoe modulates. He is tired but he isn’t worn out, and not an antagonist to the kids, like an indie Mr. Wilson, but a kind of inadvertent and willing caretaker, letting them horse around in his office and chasing away an obvious lecherous adult when he comes prowling around, a scene that feels less about the threat than the response.

The movie seems to be moving in a tragic direction, one way or another, and you sense that Bobby is in some way going to stand up as a savior. He has a son (Caleb Landry Jones), in fact, whom we see in a couple scenes of miserable manual labor, and when the kid explains he simply can’t do this kind of work anymore, Bobby understands as much as he doesn’t want to, seeming to suggest that Bobby also knows Moonee must move on from Halley. And he becomes not so much the facilitator as the peacemaker of this move, at least briefly, until the film’s dizzy, disturbing denouement. It will not be spoiled, but it’s the moment the movie stops counterbalancing its fairytale and yields fully to make-believe, looking through a child’s eyes and seeing nothing but frenzy and terror.

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