Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 October 2017

A Better Title than The Florida Project

I find the title of The Florida Project totally nonsensical. But Sean Baker apparently is not interested in titles. He titled his previous film – about two sex workers and a cab driver in Los Angeles –Tangerine, a color/fruit that has no apparent connection to the film itself. He has also said in interviews that he doesn't see why filmmakers feel the need to title their works. Ok.

I wasn't super excited for The Florida Project, but the first time I tried to see it here in Florida there was a line outside the door. Screenings of this film have been selling out in my local Orlando theatre, where it has been playing on only one screen for two weeks. In any case, the excitement was contagious, and when I finally got myself a ticket, I was really looking forward to it.

The first forty minutes or so of The Florida Project build the world in which we're going to be living in. We follow around six-year old Mooney and her miniature friends as they cause trouble, spit on parked cars, curse at adults, beg strangers for change, share a soft-serve cone between them, and turn off the power of the motel in which she lives with her mother. It's quality world-building that I didn't find that interesting until about the 40-minute mark, at which point I really became enamored with the film's characters and their world.

For the subsequent 50 minutes or so, things start to happen and the film really finds its stride. We begin to see the consequences of the absurd parenting job Mooney's mother is doing, and I began to feel afraid for the little girl at this film's center. Her mother is really not taking care of her, and this gave the film a real tension that truly began to work.

But then just as the film works its way toward its end, Baker changes the entire tone of the movie. The Florida Project ends with a laughably bad fantasy sequence that is completely incongruent with the rest of the film. All of a sudden, the beautiful care with which the previous parts of the film have been captured is discarded. The final sequence appears to have been shot on a smartphone. And all of a sudden an upbeat film score appears out of nowhere. We're clearly supposed to be in an impossible, fantasy-style sequence that is only being imagined by a character.

But who is doing this imagining? And why would a film that has been documenting the life of an impoverished six-year-old and her mother end with a sequence unrelated to the previous 90 minutes of documentation? The audience with which I saw The Florida Project left the theatre completely baffled. What was that? people were asking. Why did that happen? 

My companion and I decided that what happened was that Sean Baker doesn't really know what he's doing, and the more I think about that the more right I feel. The Florida Project is filled with interesting images and beautiful characterization, but none of this actually adds up to anything. The film ends the way it does because the end doesn't matter to the filmmaker. Baker strings sequences together, but they don't need to go in any particular order, and none of them actually says anything – about the characters or poverty in America or Florida or Kissimmee or Disney World or food or sex work or anything. They're all actually just surfaces.

A good example of what I mean is three sequences in the movie where Mooney's mom Halley (pronounced like Hayley) sells brand-name-knock-off perfume to residents at a Disney hotel. Each of these sequences is filmed in a longshot. We're asked simply to observe her, to watch her sell this perfume. And the sequences are also played for madcap humor, even one in which she is assaulted by a Disney security guard. Because the camera never moves in, the film never asks us to identify with Halley's experience while she does this. We never get a feeling of the stakes of the situation in which she has found herself. Rather than sympathizing with her, the camera sits in judgment of her, or to put it more accurately: the camera is simply there. It has nothing at all to say about what we're watching.

Baker clearly likes Richard Linklater – his influence is all over The Florida Project. I generally find Linklater a bit boring; to my mind he makes films that are more interesting in concept than in reality. But Baker really takes this all even further. It is as though he's making pseudo-documentary cinema. His camera captures the real, the gritty, the unattractive, the mundane. Fine, but what he is shooting is, of course, fictional – a set of fabricated characters and contrived situations that are not captured by his camera but created precisely for his camera – by him. He's devoted to avoiding meaning only so that his films seem more "real".

All I get from this is emptiness. The Florida Project is a film that could have plenty to say but doesn't say anything at all. And one begins to suspect that Baker doesn't have anything to say.