First things first. As with a coalition of other 2017 awards contenders (Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, etc) I’m slightly bamboozled as to why The Florida Project specifically – as opposed to other equally great films that are, to my mind, similar in level of difficulty and comparable likeliness to receive Oscar attention – is being attended to by Oscar. In this case, the appreciation for writer-director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is hard to square not only with the relative sidelining of Baker’s previous films – appreciated on the festival circuit, among critics, but never able to peak into the mainstream – but with David Gordon Green’s equally shambolic, equally hushed, and no less Southern films from the early ‘00s. Great films in The Florida Project’s milieu exist. It’s just that The Florida Project happens to be an especially stellar version of this milieu, mobilized to particularly evocative and fascinatingly self-contradictory conclusions or lack-therof. So, yeah, it goes without saying that it shouldn’t have to singularly bear the burden of Oscar glory and the attendant backlash it has received. But with a film this empathetic to all of its characters, what good is a review that doesn’t grant the film the courage of its empathy simply because people have finally decided to notice that the film is truly rapturous in its own majestic anti-majesty?
Which is to say, although The Florida Project isn’t inaugural of anything, I’m certainly not complaining that it happens to be the film in this milieu that’s captured the mainstream consciousness, relatively speaking. Not to mention, Baker’s lithe, surprisingly limber film does admittedly have a texture all its own, reorienting David Gordon Green’s own films about free-floating, impoverished children in the South and replacing a mood of low-slung, ethereal impressionism with high-strung, eminently playful monkey business. Baker concocts a cinematic ode to horsing around as the camera rough-houses with the characters while also indelibly penetrating their worlds, the film lens perpetually sideways-glancing toward murmurs of desperation and defeat. While, not to mention, it visualizes glimmers of the clogged hopes and unfulfillable desires beneath the high-jinks and clownery that make up the daily life of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and, to a lesser extent, her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). This two-person family lives in the purple-painted, dream-encrusted world of the Magic Castle, an apartment complex looming on the outskirts of Disney World in central Florida. And an apartment complex that also doubles as a totem to the failure of the American Dream, not to mention the thinning physical membrane between relative wealth and poverty. A gap that thrives not entirely on the physical displacement of poverty from the lives of the middle-class but on the mental and visual precipice where the poor are present enough to scare the middle class and absent enough to earn their sympathies only when convenient.
Fittingly, the film’s social analysis of capitalism is both always and never present, persistently there but partially displaced so it seems apolitical. It is for this reason – the fact that the film animates the duality of present-absent social oppression – that Baker’s cinematic mischief-maker wrecks a havoc that is not only personal and playful but deeply political. This is a film that is deeply aware of the inequalities which structure our lives but which remain undiagnosed because of how they ameliorate or mollify themselves, sweeping themselves under garish pink and purple carpets that refract demonstrable but deluded and diminished dreams of hope. The film suggests a truly inductive understanding of capitalist money-gouging, an oppression not force-fed to us upfront but relegated to the background of the film, envisioned not as the face of life but the Janus-headed negative mirror-image, the world behind the surface.
Largely, this sense of off-center social commentary, present in the fringes and lurking around the edges, is the offspring of the film’s wonderful, self-consciously blinkered energy, a reflection of Moonee’s unthinking, ever-acting viewpoint. She omnivorously devours the space around her as she converts the tacky countenance of impoverished spaces into the gleeful razzle-dazzle of insouciant playgrounds. These are her own personal Disney Worlds, her beacon of possibility. Animated by the ludicrous lift of her incessant energy, the film is gleefully unmoored from conventional capitalist narrative structures, freed from the tyranny of close-minded stories so Baker’s camera can instead explore the central apartment complex in all its nooks and crannies. Paradoxically though, it is only because the film lacks a tendentious impetus to narrativize this space or purely focus only those moments where the apartment fills in the film’s theme, where the character’s lives lock into “story”, that the film actually thematizes at all. The film explores how this space is dialectically a playground for Moonee and a casualty, offspring, and specter of a kind of oppressive capitalism that isn’t immediately obvious to Moonee, or to many of us, the kind of inequality which cannot be merely foregrounded in narrative as a conflict which can be easily resolved and overcome. Inequality is more diffuse, more pervasive, more insidious, and it infects all the film’s spaces, sometimes not affording for any narrative clarity or the possibility of conflict that might catalyze any sort of jockeying for pole position on the social pecking order. Power is always present but seldom truly obvious or transparent, and the film’s style realizes this sense of power as a translucent construction, visible but invisible, always on our fringes but seldom explicit, difficult to confront directly and without obstruction.
Liberated to be liquid in shape and not locked into the iron girders of conventional structure, the camera instead floats around this gaudily-christened mental palace, a castle that children imaginatively plunder from the heart of a crippling poverty they are, relatively, unaware of. In general, Baker’s film exhibits an anecdotal indifference to Herculean drama, pillaging instead from the neo-realist playbook of observational itinerancy, building up a mood, a place, a mental space over moments that converge thematically rather than narratively. Like most neo-realist films, The Florida Project self-complicates via a digressive tale that captures more intangible links between events than clear questions of cause and effect. But, incredibly, The Florida Project isn’t a verbatim lift from classical neo-realist films. In Moonee, it finds a character whose idiom is more free-spirited, wondrous even, allowing the film the incredibly rare, almost improbable, gift of proving that a genuinely sensualist aesthetic can emerge out of such an off-the-cuff, improvisatory style. Baker’s aura is truly unique here. He holds fast to the shaggy temporal and visual style of neo-realism and American independent cinema while also contrapuntally inviting cinematographer Alexis Zabe’s frissons of imaginative escape fashioned out of the very ephemera of life, of playful shenanigans mobilized from Moonee’s implacable ability to envision the world as a portal to possibility. The theme – oppressed economic voids and overlooked social abysses as imaginative portals of genuine camaraderie and humanity – is dialectical, and the style is wonderfully dialogic, sometimes akin to a Wes Anderson dollhouse set that Anderson’s polar opposite, John Cassavetes, decided to shoot a film on after it was abandoned.
Of course, not every image in the film is hewed to Moonee’s perspective, and even when it is, she reveals herself a more prematurely aware figure than she initially lets on. She catches premonitions of daily disarray that the film sublimely refracts through the internal discordance of its style. By which I mean its will to visually and sonically pull itself apart between an egg-beaten realist tempo and the imaginative beauty of the visuals, between a moral urge to stare head-on at quotidian life and an equally desperate craving to run away from it and never look back. Extraordinarily agitated and even haunted by the limits of its own imagination, and willing to admit how incomplete Moonee’s escape from poverty is, the film exists wonderfully in the throes of confusion about its own future. It alternates between avoiding and confronting the poverty at the core of the story and thereby reflecting the schizophrenic, discombobulated uncertainty of the film’s, and the child’s, mind, as well as the certain-but-uncertain ambiguities of inequality in everyday life, always foundational but lightly diffuse and frequently sublimated beneath other rhetorics.
The film either transcends or pursues this dialectic to its fatalistic conclusion in the much-discussed finale, which self-consciously and dialectically posits either true escape,or a final submission to the gaudy and delusional mindset of Americana, a retreat that suggests the only alternative to poverty is blind acceptance to the corporate monstrosity that conditions your poverty to begin with. Even better, this conclusion imagines final escape as a stylistic collapse, the film breaking its illusion of pure observation and introducing overt visual, directorial, imaginative manipulation. Here, the film intermingles possibility and artifice, freedom and failure. It essentially suggests that in order to visualize its ending, the film cannot sustain itself along its base-line visual pathway and cannot continue to suck from the fruit of its current aesthetic, and thus its normative mindset or milieu, if it wishes to offer freedom to its characters. The film has to admit it can’t furnish the dreams the young protagonist secretly wields without a radical breakage, adopting a new aesthetic entirely. Certainly, the film’s pile-up, or collision, between naturalism and surprise insurrections of expressionism self-problematizes throughout. But the film concludes with a wonderfully humbling vision of filmic death, not a character’s death but the demise of the visual schema, the perspective or lens, the film has set as its baseline. This decision is perhaps more quietly radical than the infamous ending of Persona, where the questions the film asks completely, entirely, and literally explode the film from within, but it is no less formally self-critical, and no less daring, an imaginative gesture on Baker’s part.
The ending also visualizes Disney World in the flesh for the first time, literalizing what had been a stark and phantom-like presence-of-absence throughout the film. Before that, Baker’s dexterous film is able to image Disney as a stark and all-consuming specter, the superficially-positive mirror-image of the gaudy purple Magic Castle apartment block that similarly wears a superficial, ungainly cheery visage like the Joker’s spraypaint smile and rictus grin. In both cases, the film’s pink-and-purple good-time mask suggests a location afraid of admitting us to its internal self, be it the destitution underneath the cracked veneer of hope (in the apartment’s case) or the abject moral rot and hypocrisy lurking underneath the swamp of Americana-apotheosis (in Disney’s case). Fittingly then, the apartment block is a ghoulish offspring of chintzy Americana as marvelously misshapen as Disney. The latter, a garish beacon of middle-class escape, hangs overhead throughout the film, both mocking the criminally poor and inspiring them to believe that the ideologies which oppress them are the very ones which must be pursued by the working-class. Yes, Disney World’s all-beckoning beauty corrupts the landscape around it, enervating communities and sucking the land dry while siphoning away wealth. But the theme park’s imaginative reach – its status as an aspirational symbol for even its victims – is, much like the American Dream, criminally all-consuming and anxiety-pacifying, hubristically projecting itself as the answer to the problems it creates but pretends not to.
Fittingly then, moments in the film ring out like Molotovs into capitalism’s individualist façade. When Moonee’s mother sells perfume to passer’s by, it feels like a perversion of the American individualist make-a-buck entrepreneurship credo. Baker recasts the spirit by locating entrepreneurship’s core not in optimistic desires to achieve or better the self but in the socially-enforced dearth of other opportunities and the insatiable urge to simply scrape by. Although Moonnee’s mother, in particular, may not fit the bill of good parent-ship by conventional, middle-class standards, Baker’s film never wants for genuine empathy for any of its characters as they live out their lives of missed cues, miscommunications, necessary oversights, and depressing but understandable denials. Admittedly, Baker’s eye occasionally lapses into poverty porn, and he remains entirely willing to air the dirty laundry of marginalized communities in a way that is both boon and bust, especially when his drama rides a slippery slope into melodramatic luridness, a fate that also sometimes befell Baker’s previous (also great) film Tangerine. Still, the entire film percolates with tiny particles of glee, all blanketed by a sense of undying, hard-luck empathy as these unjustly forced-together inhabitants begin to cohere as an accidental family. A family partially presided over by apartment manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who presses his residents on their failure to pay rent when the gravitational pull of poverty and capitalism places him against the others even as he plainly seems aware of the higher forces which pit them at each other’s throats.
Still, although capitalism looms large, this imaginatively-roving film that forges ahead through murk and uncertainty also resists the pull to freight its scenes with singular emphases. One unstressed, amazing early moment comes early on, and reflects the film’s ideological fluidity, which moves beyond merely moving into the narratively unexpected and into charting the emotionally uncertain. When Moonee and a friend spit on another woman’s car, the woman knocks on Mooney’s mother’s door in anger, and the kids return to the scene of the crime to wash the car while the parents shoot the shit. The victim, however, is angry that the children are enjoying cleaning up their mess – treating it as a playtime activity, not work or punishment – while Moonee’s mother fights back about the value of enjoying work. Rather than at each other’s throats though, the two single parents bond with a warmed-over mixture of competitive gusto, pungent camaraderie, and budding friendship, a swill of disagreement and agreement that suggests they are more amused by the other’s perspective than genuinely enraged by it, and that they welcome the companionship, and the smoking-partner, even in moments of possible travesty and disagreement.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t imagine a hermetic seal around Moonee or this community – consequences will befall the young girl’s actions, and everybody’s. But Baker plainly mourns when they do, confounding the respectability politics that would infect most other films about impoverished communities by conditioning the worth of the people on their positive morality and the nobility of their actions. Instead of nobility, Baker takes time to witness moments of unforced concern and compassion that, although threatened, blossom on the interpersonal battlefield between people. Although deeply existential, the entire film bristles with pure empathy, a cinematic candy splash with its eyes on the ground, its head in the clouds, and deeply cosmic implications buttressing its everyday milieu. In other words, a truly spellbinding film, one of the singular cinematic achievements of the dark days of 2017.