Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 07, 2017 6:32 pm 
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A harsh way to say it is that Baker humanizes sleaze, but this is what artists have been doing since the nineteenth century, inviting the educated classes to enter as fascinated tourists into the lives of classless, powerless, marginal people. Baker made a name by creating a gemlike first film, Tangerine, out of minimal materials in every sense, using an iPhone5 in 2015 with an anamorphic lens attachment and heightening the color (the images still glow in my memory). This time he has in every way gone bigger, shifting to 35mm film and from the world of a transgender prostitute and the fringes of Hollywood to, well, a prostitute and a big purple motel on the edge of Orlando, Florida's Disney World.

But a lot of the time - and this is its key feature - the extraordinary, marginal beings Baker focuses on in The Florida Project are six-year-olds. They are especially Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her two friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who lives just one floor down, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a new girl from a nearby inn called Futureland. The three-storey purple palace of last resort is called the Magic Castle. Its kindly but exasperated manager, who paid $20,000 to have the purple coating applied, is Bobby (Willem Dafoe). (Purple they call it, but as Anthony Lane points out, it's really mauve.)

For many at the Magic Castle this is a place of last resort. Bobby is always yelling "you're outta here" to Moonee's mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who is a childish, irresponsible, down-on-her-luck 22-year-old unemployed stripper with big tattoos on her breasts and piercings. She sells perfume illegally with Moonee in tow at nice nearby hotels but, though it's left vague, she's turning to prostitution to make the $38 a day rent at the motel. She also gets free food from behind the Waffle House where Scooty's mom (Mela Murder) works as a waitress. She's understandably hostile to Halley and her son's association with Moonee.

The three kids run wild, while Moonee is allowed with the other two, scamming tourists to get ice cream they haven't the money to pay for, spilling it in the lobby, entering into the rooms that are forbidden and once shutting down the power throughout the motel. They also explore an abandoned building, commenting on how they would redecorate the rooms, and then set fire to it. Moonie often goes back to a stately pleasure dome called Orange World, a gift shop topped off by the head of a giant wizard, and a cone-shaped Twistee Treat. In a world where a kid is lucky not to have fully grasped what the adults are doing (but Moonee is catching on fast), there is much to stimulate the fantasy of a child, despite the tawdriness hovering around the edges. And Moonee acts like a queen, showing off the place to her two pals: she knows her way around. It's summer. No school. Or did she ever go to school? Moonee reigns, anyway.

The Florida Project has a series of crises and incidents rather than a plot. It oscillates between Bobby, Halley, and Moonee, but it enters more into the kids' world than into the adults'. But while the word "adult" is used, when Moonee tells her pals "I can always tell when an adult is going to cry," there are no adults, though Bobby is, maybe, a kindly mother hen. With his images and his entry into foul language of the underclass so far it turns into some kind of rough poetry - but it can still make you wince. Sean Baker is a maker of magic - but not one who beautifies the ugly. The ugliness is all there. But toward the end when the three kids run off to a field of grazing cattle and stare at it, magic and poetry happen.

In the defiance of Moonee and her mother there's a sense of hope but also anger at their situation. Both are young enough not to have given up. In the dramatic final sequence that in a sense pulls all the scattered narrative together, that's even more clear. What Baker is selling us is sympathy and hope, in a region where our first reaction would be to see none. In other words, he is a humanist. Perhaps also a dreamer and fantasist.

What he's also doing is something like the Italian neorealists - but not entirely. They used dubbing: the non-actors who starred didn't have to understand what they were saying. This time it's likely that Bria Vinaite, whose tattoos and piercings are real, may be close in sensibility if not experience to the character and situations she plays in The Florida Project. But she is also acting, and so is the feisty Brooklynn Kimberly Prince. Baker is practicing a particularly artful kind of wrangling with his inexperienced actors and making knowledgeable use of his locations. This has an energy and a shape: more will linger than the color and this gift for marginalia will be known.

The Florida Project, 115 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2017 in Directors Fortnight, listed in 18 international festivals on IMDb, including New York. In theaters starting 6 Oct. 2017. Screened at Angelika Film Center 7 Oct. An A24 release.

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