One of the most talked-about films of the year heads to the capital, and here’s why it’s a big-screen must-see.
Indie devotee Sean Baker’s known for his experimental style. He’s been riffing on and playing around with independent ideas, clashing cultures and genuine human stories for over a decade by this point. But just a few years back, his name shot to the top of most film festivals’ watch-lists when he finished Tangerine, a grubby, searingly real dramedy following a pair of Hollywood trans prostitutes (played out on screen by real trans women), shot entirely (with precisely zero bells-and-whistles) on an iPhone 5S. And ever since then, well, he’s been hard at work on another drastically different, but equally realist project, set in the very shadows of Florida’s Disney World.
You barely have to get as far as a single frame into The Florida Project’s trailer to know that this one very obviously isn’t shot on a consumer-grade smart phone. Hell, it’s not even shot on a consumer-grade anything, with Baker making the astronomical leap to 35mm celluloid film instead; considered serious business in the now mostly-digital film-world. And it’s certainly a leap the New Jersian director made for a reason. TFP remains just as grounded and dusty in its storytelling as all of his previous movies combined. It’s still about shining a light on a marginalised community, finding humanity and stories worth telling in very dark places. But visually, it does something completely different.
Social realist drama is all about bare-bones. Stripping back the lighting, the costumes, removing any defining sense of “pizzazz” until all you have left is the subject. There’s a reason the original British movement towards this sort of thing was dubbed the “kitchen sink drama”. But with TFP, Baker does almost the exact opposite. In a film about struggling no-income families, living out their summer in a dicey roadside motel, he turns away from the doom and gloom, cranking up the colours, the photography, the entire production, all the way to 11. Building into the lives and imaginations of the young kids that take centre-stage for the heftiest part of his movie, Baker’s all about juxtaposition. The fun stuff, all the hope and wonder that comes with being a kid and being oblivious to the real world, thinly layered over the top of the kitchen-sink essentials; the reality, the darkness, so the cracks begin to show.
The world of TFP is a gorgeous, shimmering place, painted in stunning pastels; bright pinks and blues and the softest of edges. So naturally bright, a rainbow wouldn’t look out of place. It’s a world we can get so happily lost in, basking in the second-hand rays of the purest, most kid-friendly place on earth: Disney World. A semi-permanent vacation from the structures of everyday life, like proper employment, long-term housing, school. And the real magic of Baker’s film is in just how fleeting the whole thing is.
It’s a film that has no proper, direct story, no three-act structure and no real climax either. It’s more of a series of varied vignettes from the kids’ summer, goings-on from around the motels where they live and play. They do all build towards something, but Baker’s film is more about capturing a feeling and a snapshot in time than it is about marking the downfall of a culture, or charting a specific plot. So with each stride and each time-jump, you can almost feel the summer slipping away, and taking this stupendously colourful world we just want to hang around in forever, with it.
The Florida Project has all the earmarks of something socially-real and “kitchen sink” driven. No-name actors (bar the occasional Willem Dafoe), real-world locations, a semi-political filter, it’s all there. But in building his core world almost entirely around kids, playing on their childish wonder and bouncing that off of what audiences expect from social realism, Baker goes a step beyond, opening up something totally new and unexplored, making for one of the most exciting and invigorating movies of the year.
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