Not too long before I sat down to see "The Florida Project," I happened to emerge from a place of deep self-reflection, where I concluded that I see myself as an anti-capitalist eco-socialist.
Upon even deeper self-reflection, however, I identified one tiny but significant exception to that general identity, that probably unravels the whole thing: When it comes to the Walt Disney Corporation, I am a total corporate shill.
Hey, everybody has their little hypocrisies and self-deceptions. The important thing is that that we come to see and own them, right?
It is a shame, though, that the one corporation I choose to uncritically engage and revere no matter what is the one that owns basically all of the world at this point. It may be time again for me to reevaluate how I see the world.
Fortunately, my ethical and self-identified blind spot does not limit my ability to appreciate when others create more scrupulous examinations of the Walt Disney brand, and so I was able to fully appreciate the beautiful, life-affirming, extraordinary film, "The Florida Project."
The film was directed by Sean Baker, whose previous film, "Tangerine," was famously shot on an iPhone 5s. Now, he's graduated to stunning 35 millimeter film, with cinematographer Alexis Zabe, so it's like someone graduating from pre-school and moving on with a full-ride scholarship to Harvard.
The film's examination of the Walt Disney brand is less about the way the company owns the world and more about the way it owns a certain narrative about happiness, which it sells all around the world.
"The Florida Project" is about the untold characters on the periphery of that narrative, literally the people who populate the outskirts of the Disney park in Orlando: people scraping by in inexpensive motels that are modeled to perpetuate the Disney fantasy central to the local economy, but whose surreally colored paints peel and fall apart without the bankrolling of the major corporation next door.
The motels and other businesses have names like the Magic Castle, the Wishing Star and Futureland, populating streets with names like Seven Dwarfs Lane. Everything in town is shaped like theme park installations, including the local diner, even though the inspiration for its shape and name is the "other" major economic export of the community: It's called The Orange Place.
Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager (not the owner) of the Magic Castle, a bright purple haven of residents whose dreams have not come true. He's absolutely phenomenal here, essentially reprising his role of the tortured, flawed and human Jesus of Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."
But Dafoe is not the star of this film, which is mainly focused on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). The press notes describe Prince and Vinaite as, respectively, "a stunning breakout" and "another major discovery," and honestly, those descriptions couldn't be more correct.
The real stars are Moonee and her friends, who are incredible revelations with absolutely distinct personalities, desires and complete arcs. Along with Prince, fellow young performers Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto do just terrific work.
They all share single ice cream cones together, which quickly melt in the hot Florida sun, their own saliva becoming a main ingredient as they all take turns giving it a lick, laughing. Their unawareness of the weightiness of the adult world, despite being deeply affected by it, is one of the film's many stunning portraits of human goodness.
But most impressively, "The Florida Project" is not "poverty porn," existing to gawk or condescend. The characters, child and adult alike, are multi-dimensional human beings, presented with dignity at all times, and not always doing the right thing. (The film opens with some of the children gleefully hocking loogies onto a stranger's car, but even that is presented with innocence, and it quickly becomes a softening force of the harshness of the adult world when the scene ends with the introduction of new friends.)
It's not that the kids are carefree, but their problems exist -- for most the movie -- on a plane that is much less heavy than the world of the adults, which means they don't completely grasp the consequences of their actions, or the broader, abstract meaning of anything in their lives. At one point, they disagree about whether the news on TV is boring or fun to watch.
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch have a fullness of heart toward their characters, protecting them not just from visual exploitation (the camera always careful to not show what it doesn't have to), but from dramatic or narrative exploitation too, a rare thing in this genre.
What I mean is, the conflicts of this film are intense, but they aren't ridiculous. Things get exactly as difficult for the characters as things get in real life, the film investing enough in the truth of the situations that it doesn't need to manufacture over-the-top soapiness in order to create emotional energy.
And there are so many beautiful visual compositions throughout this film, which add to the dignity of the characters too, while never making their lives seem simpler than they are. The beautiful imagery contributes to an aspect of this film that I loved: the ardent position that beauty and love are part of the human experience, even without being subsidizing by a corporation's idea of a magic fantasy.
Happiness, like tragedy, come free, inescapable, to every human life.
After a wrenching climax, the film's final scene is exceptionally bold, at least from a filming perspective, from what I can only assume were some exceptional limitations on location. It's a delightful sequence. I actually see it as a scene that is meant to be a fantasy, not happening in the main narrative of the film.
But a good argument could be made of that question. Either way, it's a wonderful thematic resolution, and it's exactly the right note to end on.
"The Florida Project" creates a world that is so much bigger than just what we see. Much of the story happens offscreen, creating for the audience an immersion into a childlike view of the world, where we don't have all the information yet, but we have enough to understand love, happiness, trauma and beauty.
Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Bria Vinaite
Running time: 1 hour, 55 min
Rating: R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material