The Magic Kingdom of Empathy
For most folk, including myself, the first sashay into the cinematic universe of director Sean Baker was the fabulous, beautiful and gaudy magnificence of ‘Tangerine’ (2015). Not only was the movie hyper rich in beautiful cinematography (despite being filmed using iPhones), but it was also lush in the characters and language that inhabited this seemingly surreal world, that was actually more representative of reality than what mainstream media sells to us, more Fake Reality than Fake News.
Baker has taken the winning ingredients of ‘Tangerine’ and tenderly marinated his next serving, the wonderful ‘The Florida Project’ (2017) with all the truths, integrity, honesty and non judgmental presentation of a world that’s seemingly hidden, yet right in front of us for those that can see. And if you can’t see it, he’s going to show it to you anyways.
There’s a fundamental contrast at the heart of this movie, the artifice of life and what we build around us to support that lie, and the sweet and sour reality of what our lives actually are. It’s sign posted in the opening moments as the overt disco joy of ‘Celebration’ by Kool & The Gang blasts out raising the serotonin levels, Disneyesque script title writing announcing a modern day fairytale, and we are introduced to what are effectively modern day street urchins sitting in front of lavender wall, a colour of such a horrible hue that it must have been created by someone who is colour blind, more murky than vibrant. It’s not just one wall though, it’s an entire hotel, The Magic Castle Motel on the outskirts of Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida, the modern day slums outside the resplendent wealth of the corporate mouse crown.
The inhabitants of this motel are a community on the fringes of society. Working in minimum wage waffle shop jobs, if working at all, to try and make the weekly rent to the hotel manager Bobby (William Dafoe). These folk are on the last rung of the ladder before homelessness, and as is the survival instinct of human nature, they try to make the best of it.
It’s a long hot summer, and there’s not much to do for the local kids who fill time by meandering the crassly constructed architectured realms. As is apparent on the TV ads and the thousands of tourists visiting the area, happiness has to be bought, and as the only money they make is like left over crumbs from the passing affluent. Selflessly, these crumbs combine to purchase shared treats such as a single icecream cone hustled from the temporary guilty nobility. In their world any and all fleeting rewards are shared, not hoarded away like Scrooge McDuck. Spreading happiness to all rises above the narrow-minded needs of the individual.
These hustlers come in the form of 6 year old Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who become friends after a somewhat unique introduction to each other. Friends by shared circumstance, they while away the summer hours as mostly what kids do, and actually like some criminals too. Moonee’s young single mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) hasn’t exactly established parameters of good parenting upon her daughter, but rightly there’s no judgemental leanings in the movie, these folk are in a manufactured and abandoned isolation, where the only help seems to come from a local church group food delivery, and the fatherly tender smiles of Bobby.
The movie wonderfully follows the daily exploits and exploitations of the merry band of frolicsome rascals as they hustle and play, to enjoy and to survive, the derelict ruins are alive with the sound of laughter. Their is no malice in their intent, but that doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen.
There is a truly affirming honesty to the portrayal of everyone involved. Halley does what she feels is necessary to give her daughter the best life she can offer, trying to hide the constant darkness at the bathroom door. She really is trying to do the best she can considering what she has at her disposal, ie nothing.
Doing the best that he can and trying to corral this rodeo of life is Dafoe turning in one of the most gentle and beautiful performances of his career, he is the kindly tolerant, empathetic father figure to what is effectively a small village. But it’s not just him, Baker has a enchanting talent for finding stunning human beings to tell his stories, Vinaite is just brilliant, but the real Queen of the castle is young Prince, who at 6 years of age has turned in one of the most amazing delights to be seen on a screen in a very long time.
There are good things that happen, there are bad things that happen, but it’s all dusted in the true magic of life, honesty. The spell is in the everyday moments, the simple delights, the fleeting carefree time we have before the harsh realities enter into our stories, the fables of our lives.
As with reality, this film won’t be for everyone, but it is a gorgeous piece of sincere storytelling, glorious in it’s cinematography, acting and virtue.
9/10 ‘The Florida Project’ is out now.