The Florida Project — 7/10

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

Now with six features under his belt (the last three of which I’ve seen), Baker has established himself as a workhorse keen on specificity and world-building. The difference with his latest is that the details of his world have a much larger resonance beyond the specifics on which he focuses. Whereas STARLET and TANGERINE had their fair share of humanism on display, they were introverted films too carefully examining their own bodies. Now the gaze is looking up from the navel and into the sky above, and that’s what lets the audience in. Finally, I was emotionally involved, and the individual feels connected to the universal.

The looming presence of Disney World shadows every scene, though we don’t get a glimpse of the actual kingdom until the final shot. We’re in a place that couldn’t be closer to family paradise, but also couldn’t be further away from it — there’s nothing here as squeaky clean, corporatized, or luxurious as a theme park. When the kids run past the sign for FutureLand, it says “Stay in the future — today.” But the future these children inhabit is one of economic depression and increased danger. Still, that ugly existence is shot with tender beauty by Baker and his production team, who manage to find the right pink Florida sunsets as a backdrop, and powerful wide shots for kids to drift their way through the frame. The world, and the future, is what you make of it.

Willem Dafoe (who has defied nature by managing to be exactly 46 years old for over three decades) plays his motel manager character as a caring protector, leader, and cheek-turner — as if he was reprising his Jesus role from Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. He usually reserves his anger for the worst threats to his domain: not the tenants, but creeps like the pedophile he scares off the property in his most heroic scene. When he has to clash with Bria Vinaite as the troubled young mother Halley (think a white-trash Sarah Polley), his threats are emptier — as annoyed as he gets, he won’t deprive her and her daughter Moonee of a home.  But he has a boss, too, and he still has to repair the ice machine.

Baker wisely avoids the poverty-porn trap that victimized BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD by refusing to condescend. A good balance of humor and objective distance helps the plot-free nature-doc aspects of it go down easy, and before you know it, a climactic close-up shot of Moonee crying is unshakably heart-breaking even though you know it’s manipulative. The pathos is earned, legitimately or not, just like every dollar Halley makes to pay her rent. And while a few of the vignette detours fail to resonate (the relationship with Scooty and his mom culminates in drama but not a payoff) and the directionless pace (trying too hard to match the directionless protagonists) kills some momentum, the distinct tone is what lingers. And all the complications, nuances, and moral grey areas keeping Baker’s shoes gum-stuck to the asphalt — they’re absolutely necessary.

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