Tangerine director Sean Baker returns to Seattle Screens this week with another tale of life on the margins of 21st century capitalism. Set entirely around the vicinity of the cheerfully purple Magic Castle motel, a semiurban wasteland of hotels, abandoned houses and oversized promotional mascots bordering the unapproachable dream of Disney World, Baker takes for his heroes a small group of children, led by Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), an amoral, loudmouth innocent trying to entertain herself over summer break. The first half of the film mostly follows her adventures with the neighbor kids in the motel (begging for change to buy ice cream, playing hide and seek in the motel office, exploring empty houses and what passes for countryside amid Orlando’s sprawl). The second half focuses more on Moonee’s mother, just as loud, but more amoral, as she resorts to increasingly inappropriate ways of earning the weekly rent cash. Uniting it all is the weary presence of Willem Dafoe, motel manager, a good man trying to do his job with compassion and honor.
Like Tangerine, Baker films with a sun-dappled luminosity that’s all but anathema in the European art house tradition of films about poverty. Being poor isn’t supposed to look nice, or fun, and the easiest way to convey that is with a drab grunginess. The Florida Project rejects that approach, but also the kind of somber mysticism that makes things like Beasts of the Southern Wild* or George Washington palatable for a mass audience. His models instead go back further, to the Depression: Hal Roach and the Little Rascals are thanked in the credits, and the influence of those stories of kids being poor but nonetheless being kids is clear. I was reminded as well of Frank Borzage’s classic No Greater Glory, about unsupervised children recreating the martial ideologies and conflicts of their parents’ generation, with tragic consequences. The kids in The Florida Project aren’t playing war games, but are instead learning their parents’ approaches to failing in capitalism: acting out against things, not people – they vandalize objects of wealth, a car, a house. One of their first acts of terror is literally turning off power. Poverty in The Florida Project never looks fun, it looks brutal and crushingly sad (the unseen face of the boy forced to give away all his toys because they don’t fit in his father’s car when they’re moving away). But it’s still sunny in Florida, and there is ice cream and cows and maple syrup to be found.
The film builds to an inevitably devastating conclusion, Baker cutting rapidly through three different planes of action (on three different levels of the motel) as a family is torn apart and Dafoe walks helplessly away. But then the film makes its boldest homage, to no less than Murnau’s The Last Laugh. The camera abruptly switches to a clandestine iPhone, the device of Tangerine, filming without permission on private property, as two girls run away and keep running, all the way to the Happiest Place on Earth. A desperate escape into fantasy, a double-edged sword that makes its tragedy all the more heart-breaking, and in turn its wish-fulfillment all the more necessary.
*I assume. I haven’t actually seen Beasts of the Southern Wild, but the clips and trailers seem insufferable and they alone certainly I think qualify as somber mysticism.