Thursday, December 28, 2017


Two kids against a purple wall. A scream off. They respond. This keeps up until the third gets there and tells them to follow him. They do, running past huge cartoon heads, balloons, fruit and great splats of colour, all shops, to a landing of the purple place they live in, the project of the title, where they spit on the car below. The owner comes out and yells at them and they return fire with adult turns of phrase that aren't so much cute as worrying. They disperse. The girl runs back to her motel room where her mother Halley, almost entirely tattooed and green haired, is on the bed gazing at the tv. When the manager knocks because of the spitting a few minutes later, Halley shouts at her daughter to get the door. She has reasons for not answering it herself.

Halley manages the day to day hanging by a thread as she scams, does tricks or just begs her way through the days. The rent is always due and it's always too much. Meanwhile her daughter Moonee runs amok, leading any other kid she can find to cause mischief. But this film makes it clear that children with their nuclear level energy are pushing their own knowledge with each new experience more potent a lesson than anything in the classrooms they will soon be entering. They hangout at the swamps or the abandoned housing projects, all with names of dashed hopes like Magic Castle or Future World. It's Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. But Disney World is over the road which is lethally busy, the cars speed thickly, their roofs like the fins of sharks. From a pad nearby a helicopter seems constantly taking off, carrying those who can afford it into the sky like a rapture for the one percent. Halley and Moonee give it the finger at one point. The July 4th fireworks from Disney World are spectacular, even seen from the damp grass of the swamp.

This day to day plotlessness is made compulsive movie going through the sheer boldness of its presentation. We don't have to work too hard to know the irony of all the candy coloured poverty but neither are we beaten about the head by it, that's simply what life looks like here. The persistent aural reminders are the same with kiddy pop and cartoon soundtracks on televisions that stay on when everyone's asleep. And the tension between the ugly acts of grown-ups and the gormless disasters of the children's play commands us: it's a system but it's always on the edge of snapping.

And it's the performers. Bria Vinaite as Halley goes from sweetness to cozening to outright horrifying as she swings between survival and an unrestrained sense of injustice that hasn't developed past her childhood. Brooklyn Prince as Moonee is only anything but natural when she's trying to be a grown up and then she seems heart-rendingly aware of its futility. Her dialogue and that of the other kids, especially when together never drops from natural, never sounds scripted. The film's thread of the elastic boundary between life and its violations is dependent on the direct identification we are forced to make between the wildness of the children and the only partially guarded chaos of their parents. Each moment feels precarious, each happy laugh a second away from a scream.

Presiding over this or what little he can control is Bobby the manager. Willem Dafoe whose intensity has taken him from roles as Jesus, to the chaotically violent Bobby Peru, to a recreation of Max Schreck as Nosferatu and beyond, seems to bring all that experience and the rest of the hemisphere on his shoulders as he keeps as much of the chaos on his watch from exploding beyond its bounds. Is he a little too good? Maybe, but if so it's the character rather than the performance which fills the gaps of any under-drafting with what feels like a very muscular concern for those around him. His scene with a freezingly banal paedophile demonstrates this: he knows he can't stop the man from invading anywhere else but uses a telltale detail found on the predator's driver's licence to buy a little time because that's really all that can be believably done about anything on that side of the road.

Taking in the sustained power of this film I was reminded as I might have been of John Cassavetes' often brutal naturalistic style, adopted from Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave. The unflinching and knowing eye coupled with the confident direction of the actors to keep themselves grounded in documentary realism is there for anyone to compare. But I was also taken by the direction of the children and the realisation of their secret world and how it reminded me of a favourite from years ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild. While never attempting the magical realism of that piece, The Florida Project's joy in examining the seriousness of children's play is as rich as it is in Beasts which is a tribute I'll happily part with.

And then, as the worst of the threads wind tight and the inevitable teeters to its crash in these lives we find a moment of magnanimity and even love that lifts us like children to its warmth. It's the sole moment with scored music and feels as manipulative as you might imagine but it is so perfect for what you need after the rest of the film that you simply don't care about that. Strong candidate for best of the year.

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