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’Tis both sunny and cloudy in Florida

| Updated on: Oct 27, 2017
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Living in the shadow of one of the ‘happiest places on the planet’ is not always a happy option. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, one of the films screened at MAMI this month, captures dangerous childhood and parenthood

When did we last see a working-class white person in an American movie? Indeed, how many working-class white people do we come across in regular pop culture? In the aftermath of an election fought on the basis of a raging anti-immigrant debate, abortion laws, public healthcare, and the unemployment crisis, The Florida Project gives faces to such debates, a real-time, real-life case study in sunny Florida, next to The Magic Kingdom. Moonee, the principal protagonist, and her cohorts’ summer plans. Moonee is a precocious six-year-old who lives with her young mother Halley at a cheap motel called The Magic Place, the mise en scène for most of the action. Halley makes barely enough to afford the weekly rent, and is constantly threatened with eviction by the hotel manager, played by yesteryear Batman Willem Dafoe. Halley spends her day in the room, supposedly babysitting her daughter and her friend’s son while the kids roam around the motel, and do what they like, even as she spends time smoking and watching TV.

The opening shot of The Florida Project cuts into the middle of action, as the kids are seen spitting on a car, till the owner, a neighbour, catches them in the act and goes complaining to the parents. The kids spend most of their time making mischief, hustling tourists, annoying the manager, or crossing over to the nearby ice-cream parlour. Each building in the area is garishly painted to appeal to children — the bright-orange juice shop shaped like half-an-orange; the Magic Place in the colour purple, to match the costume of a Disney princess.

Halley doesn’t take the complaints she gets about Moonee seriously. She doesn’t believe in minding her, treating her like an adult instead. “I’ve failed as a mother Moonee, you’ve disgraced me,” the lead of the film says half-jokingly, turning her back to her child romping about on the bed just as Dafoe grumbles about a dead fish Moonee has cast in the pool. “Mom, you’re a disgrace,” Moonee says, laughing back at the mother. The two seem accomplices, not parent-child.

At one point in the narrative, Halley has managed to convince passers-by to pay $300 for the perfumes she hustles on the streets. She walks into a department store, Moonee in tow, to buy stuff that the viewer is surprised, even dismayed, to see. Given that just moments before you see the duo struggling hand-to-mouth, the mother splurges and even encourages her daughter to spend on non-essential items, such as flower crowns. Later, the mother-daughter duo is at a five-star buffet, eating like there is no tomorrow.

Poignant moments fill The Florida Project with irony, and the well-rounded characters make you feel you know them personally by the end of the film. The narrator of the film is definitely behind the little girl, who is determined to make the best of every situation she is in — the irrepressible underdog, quietly aware of her circumstances, but ready to put up the best fight that she can, that too with humour. Her mother, on the other hand, holds everyone else responsible for her plight.

Director Sean Baker, in an interview to Variety , clarified why he thought Bria Vinaite, whom he found on Instagram, would be the perfect fit to play mom to Brooklynn Prince’s Moonee. “I was looking for a maternal relationship, but I was definitely looking for a sibling relationship somewhere, and when these two met, it was magical how they got along,” said Baker. Vinaite, with her striking appearance and personality — tattoos, thick Southern accent, spunky clothes, stoner-speak — essays the role effortlessly. Initially nervous about debuting in the film, she was reported saying that she learnt “a hundred things every day”.

The cast, like in any classic indie film, has a good mix of professional actors and people like Vinaite, who were picked to suit the role. The humour — and there’s a good bit in there — saves the film from turning into a sob story. For all that, The Florida Project is still a difficult film to watch. It lays threadbare the conditions under which the children live a meagre subsistence.

We see the permanent residents of the motel spend their Florida summer doing the same activities every day, right next to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, ‘the happiest place on Earth’. Dafoe tip-taps on the keyboard, the kids dance on the picnic table outside the motel, Halley smokes joints in her bedroom, Moonee bathes her dolls in the bathtub.

Baker uses the false sense of calm pervading the film to reveal the darkness — when Moonee’s safe place in the bathtub is invaded by her mother’s customer; when one day, all of a sudden, Halley’s food supply stops, or when Dafoe is compelled to throw the duo out for a day due to ‘management policy’.

Food, or the lack of it, plays a major role. Moonee and her mother do not enjoy a home-cooked meal, except for the one day they get food and shelter at a neighbour’s. Sometimes, Halley’s friend, a waitress who works nearby, gives the kids bags of free food from the backdoor of the restaurant, in exchange for Halley looking after her child. When both the mothers have a fallout, that supply is cut off.

But the mother-daughter duo doesn’t starve. In fact, there are joyful moments where they have hustled and managed free meals. The child shares the mother’s talent for hustling. She manages to get ice cream for herself and her friends by wheedling unsuspecting tourists to pay for her share. And yet, as the film grows on you, it is difficult not to care for them, to worry about their next paycheque, the acute stress of living on the edge of society. The audience’s anxiety is seemingly shared by Dafoe’s character. He tries his best to keep a lookout for the kids, as they traipse around the ground, or get themselves embroiled in mischief. Yet, for all his efforts, Halley doesn’t appreciate his involvement and takes it as an apparent judgement on her inability to mother her child.

The film is dark, in a lightened atmosphere; the poverty and the social insecurity are kept at bay till the very end when the consequences unfold. Here’s a mother who goes against the very stereotype of the ‘mother’ identity, with callousness, but also joie de vivre . Even though she is happy to tell Dafoe off when he tries to scrutinise her activities, telling him that he isn’t her father, it is difficult to take her seriously. She pins a sanitary napkin on the glass door of his reception room to register her protest at being treated like a child.

Her free spirit flows into the child, who laps up all her craziness, and accepts it as their way of life, oblivious to the numerous hazards to their little establishment — societal disapproval that threatens to topple the family any moment.

And yet, it is a happy summer, despite the food and living situation, the ongoing fights with neighbours, the fallout with her best friend, (spoilers!) the kids burning a house down, and creating mayhem. It is debatable whether they are having the happiest time on earth, but they’re most definitely living in interesting times.

Despite here lack of sense of structured parenting, Halley has taken naturally to motherhood. Her child means a lot to her and, yet, in the end, when child services arrive, the audience is forced to contemplate this.

The beauty of this narrative lies in the fact that it doesn’t push any moral judgements on its characters — something hard to navigate in near-dystopia.

Published on January 09, 2018

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