A Failed Project

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 23.]

I’d been waiting to see The Florida Project because of all the positive press it was getting. I purposely don’t like to read synopses, however, because I’d rather have no expectations and let a given film do what it’s going to do, and then take it on its own merits instead of being influenced by what a critic has to say.

The film is set perfectly in Orlando, very literally in the shadows of “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Sean Baker sets up shots against numerous backdrops and lets the characters walk through and in front of them. The scenes are both whimsical and depressing, as everything is influenced by Disney, and yet tawdry in comparison (as one unhappy Brazilian newlywed discovers).

I suppose this is what a free childhood summer looks like in 2018: children getting into mischief on concrete and metal rather than in woods and lakes, who can fling expletives as well as the adults, and whose mischief carries heavier fines and penalties than, perhaps, it once did.

The children are actually the glowing center of the film, natural and free within their particular boundaries. They are innocent enough in their own context, but there is always the threat of that innocence being destroyed (as it no doubt will be in the future). I wondered if all their lines were scripted, or if they ad-libbed some of it (in particular, the scene with Moonee and Hailey at the hotel buffet), because their words don’t sound as if they were put in their mouths by adults. They sound like children’s words, though picked up from and influenced by (as children’s words are) the adults around them.

The ending offers a little hope, but it’s hope by escape. And so I wonder what the “project” is in the title. Is it project as in “the projects”? Or is it project as in a work that is in progress? And whose project is it? Is it the American project? If it’s Hailey’s, it seems to be going nowhere. She’s content with where she is and what she’s doing. This is not the sort of down-and-out story where a central character is seemingly frustrated by external forces, preventing her from getting ahead. If her aspirations are frustrated, they are aspirations only for the short-term, the immediate, the next dollar, and the next week’s rent.

It’s not until the Florida Department of Children and Families shows up at her hotel room that she feels her contentment slipping. And even then, in her mind it can’t be because she has somehow failed. It is everyone and everything else that has failed her. They are interfering with her perfectly fine life, and she is perpetually offended. She has created her own circumstances, so she’s not upset by where she is. But she has no sense that her circumstances are unsustainable.

I love the film’s meandering freedom as it follows Moonee, Scootie, Dicky, and Jancey across hotel parking lots, to restaurant back doors, to strange and wild oases not yet covered by asphalt, including one very old tree, which is “still alive,” as Moonee says. But the movie leaves me with a bitter taste at the broken hopelessness. There is not, as far as I can see, a single intact family anywhere in the film. You don’t see families struggling together in hard circumstances. You see individuals, and children, and the other individuals with whom they come into contact. You see the approximation of siblings in the children who run wild, but only one of their parents is a father. The rest are mothers and grandmothers playing the cards they’ve been dealt or which they’ve drawn themselves. In that sense, it’s probably an accurate portrayal of how things are in a lot of places.

That’s why the ending doesn’t exactly inspire hope. It is escapism, sure, as Disney World is meant to be. But it also feels like an unattainable dream. The cinematography suddenly changes and becomes almost dream-like, as Jancey and Moonee run off, headed toward a castle that doesn’t exist in the real world. Isn’t that escapism exactly what Hailey and others in the hotel are actively pursuing? A few moments at a food truck and in a club, an hour with a beer and a joint in the pool. These are moments outside the norm of their day-to-day lives.

For some reason, I’ve seen a few films recently that deal with the inescapability of life as it is, even with brief moments of respite. The situation feels hopeless, whether or not the person is trying to do better. We find ourselves in this or that place, better or worse, and we do what we can. If not an indictment of the “American dream,” it seems like the downward spiral cannot be reversed, so why try? Sure, people might have made different decisions at critical junctures, but they made those decisions, and now what? They can be faulted for what they’ve done and left undone, but floating free from any anchor, all that action and inaction piles up more quickly than most of us realize.

Besides that, The Florida Project casts a cynical eye on the glitter of the rich “tourists,” who themselves are escaping whatever little existences they’ve created. It seems like a clear-eyed vision, but clear vision doesn’t make anyone happy—and the only happiness in this film is feigned. The only smiles that are occasionally genuine are the children’s.

If you want a happy ending, if you want redemption, if you want some hope, don’t look here. Even so, it doesn’t hurt for the eternal American optimist to look in the mirror once in a while.

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