the florida project (2017)
In Baker's vision of childhood the world simply is. No rhyme or reason, no proper and improper; what we're born into we experience as normalcy, no matter how bizarre. What we see each day becomes permanent, our pillars and foundations are found in the most unexpected places. What makes childhood so different from the rest of our existence? What makes childhood so magical? In The Florida Project the answer is simple: Adults. For the grown characters in the film, the absence of guiding figures is noticeable in each and every scene. The children are corralled, protected, scolded, treated, ignored and punished. There are few, in this case only Dafoe's lone Bobby, who can provide any of the same treatment, though he tries to parent each and every one of the adults at some point throughout the film. The children explore their world, misbehave and try to score ice cream whenever they can get a buck. The adults do much of the same minus the sense of fascination at what they see around them; everything is old news but they never lose that sense of wanting to escape. We pursue what we want, we come to odds, we fight or we take flight and in many ways we take flight while staying exactly where we are. What makes the film's adult characters so tragic is that in their freedom to choose, they have chosen to feel trapped. The children who choose to be free are, of course, always trapped by the decisions and mandates of their elders. The children exist in a world of magic because they don't know what's inside the various machine rooms and electrical boxes that keep it all running; they aren't aware of the mechanisms and therefore retain the sense of wonder. The Florida Project is a beautiful slice of American realism. What makes Baker's film tick so well is its adherence to a constant feeling of weightlessness in its weighty story. The decisions made by those onscreen can feel heavy, each and every one of them are burdened, but the film never is. It floats, like those clouds in the rich blue Orlando sky, from one day to another, one moment to the next, with no hint of how much time is passing between each. With The Florida Project, Baker fully realizes an aesthetic of genuine life and fluid beauty; a plot that subtly guides the viewer towards its conclusion and unfolds like a memory when we close our eyes and look back at the world we knew in childhood.
The endless colors and sounds of summer, those cicadas buzzing in mid-day. Baker makes use of his cinemascope wide screen in spades throughout from brilliantly vivid color in the scorching day heat to the silhouettes at sunset. The Florida Project's visuals craft a large world full of intrigue, each landmark motel and ice cream shop is given its spotlight. What Baker captures best is the transience of youth, especially a youth in benign poverty, not necessarily going hungry, yet having little to call your own, a life adrift in the urban sprawl. There is little in the way of abject suffering depicted onscreen, merely malaise and hopelessness all swirled together with the carefree enjoyment of a youth that knows no other reality. Baker paints a picture of poverty that is ignorant of being so, and this is where the joy and magic are found in the film. With each new scene we are transported to see our surroundings, not with our own eyes, but with new eyes of youth that do not attribute any number of learned labels onto the scenario. In its most realist sense, it fiddles neither to our preconceived notions of poverty nor to our cinematic learned behaviors of being targeted to emote on command at the situation, rather it grasps a general level of dissatisfaction that manifests as angry outbursts toward a world that didn't turn out as hoped for. The film catches its perfect wave in the mother/daughter moments of mutual acting out at any obstacle, human or otherwise, between aloof detachment and themselves. When the realities of the situation begin to press too closely, it is avoided all the more. The cool and willful ignorance of engaging any feeling of emotional drag coupled with entitled feelings of retribution toward any perceived dent in the ego combine for the perfect portrait of the American psyche in the 21st century. Baker's storytelling here is assured and humane, treating each piece of the puzzle with dignity. Dafoe's character provides the true adult/parent of the film's structure, yet we barely connect with his character on a truly personal level. He remains, evermore, the figure that he is in the eyes of all other characters, showing signs and hints of his true persona many times, yet never stepping down from his station to truly reveal himself to the audience. Baker's approach of methodical revelatory observation and quiet moments of honesty and privacy within the mundane bring us closer to each character without ever really crossing the threshold and exposing their deeper thoughts, nor their past. To feel so expressly close and understanding of characters who exhibit few admirable actions and whose backstories remain a mystery requires the balancing act of expertly restrained and assured filmmaking.
The film comes to its deepest conclusions just at its closing, finding our ordinary world of the film that we've lingered in from the outset shattered, and because of the actions of adults (relocating, disciplinary) the child we spend most of our time with has only one friend left that she can still contact. The tragedy and heartbreak take hold, she confesses that the girl is her "best friend", though we know she is literally the only friend she still has contact with. Completely alone and in unknown circumstances, the girls seem to depart the picture's reality. Just as our children only know what they have seen through life and have no context through which to view their comfort and discomfort, so too are they trapped in what they know as utopia, running toward the closest piece of magic they can think of, they run to Disney World. It is Baker's saddest statement that for their limited minds and limited understanding of the world around them, this close-to-home landmark of false, commercial magic is the closest thing to real elation they have known and possibly will know. The film is a triumph of realism in the vein of Visconti and Rossellini, a portrait of life among circumstance and what builds us as what we are during our formative years. Baker finds truth amidst a world of fabricated commercial effigies.