They don’t generally make movies for the likes of me anymore – I am not really anyone’s sought-out demographic – so I rarely attend the cinemaplex much at all. The television commercials alone appearing before the previews; egad, by the third or fourth Uncle Hipster is generally ready to bail.
Yet, once a year around this time, I find myself craving and seeking something that is a reminder of good, honest, adult film making and story telling, an Up In the Air or Spotlight or Big Short. This year, a few weeks back, I caught Willem DaFoe on a noontime re-airing of PBS’ Tavis Smiley Show (I know, right?) promoting something called The Florida Project. It has become this year’s volley of the season.
Catching a half-hour conversation with the Mississippi Burning and Platoon star was a cool enough lunch-hour treat in itself, but the trailer for the film was an even more enchanting surprise, providing the promise of something enjoyable and inspiring and original in which to engage. An uptivating micro-dose of a real story well-told.
I ended up seeing the film on the eve of its opening a few Thursdays back, making the day-and-a-half drive from Lakewood to the Cedar Lee, along the way feeling the lift of anticipation. I was really excited to see this movie. Was brimming with hope. Wanted to love it.
Even with cinematography that sometimes conjures a David Lean sheen capturing and projecting the gaudy world of strip mall boulevards just beyond the Disney grid with epic lighting on colors and wind on reeds in neglected lots, the film never seems impressed with itself; pretty without pretense, the daugher-mother story neither mawkish nor easy. There is no bullshit to the people or their tales. And sitting in the dark, experiencing a film you realize early on you’re really digging, a stream of Lean-like associations began unspooling, connecting moments of classic movies and directors echoing their own era’s stories of real people up against hard times colliding with honest, sometimes aching humor and Serenity Prayer moments of true human compassion.
Gradually, this piece takes its place in your purview beside various masterpieces, a reminiscent blend of John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath with John Sayles’ Sunshine State and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. There’s a sharp dose of Norman Lear working-class shattered-glass poetry along with a John Avildsen–Sidney Lumet authenticity and integrity. Through this little Dollar Tree miracle, director Sean Baker has created a prayer as much as a magnum opus, both belonging in the same paragraph as the aforementioned masters and their works.
One scene in particular stands out and still inspires weeks later. Two of the residents – a young tatted, easily agitated and underemployed dad and his six-year-old son – are leaving their home in the Magic Castle Motel community, heading to New Orleans for possible work. As the Magic Castle kids surround his small car and say goodbye, the dad discovers his son’s box of toys in the driver’s seat of the overpacked compact. ‘We don’t have room for this,’ the dad tells his son. ‘We’ll get new toys when we get to New Orleans. Everything’ll be new.’ – He then turns to the kids and gives them the box, telling them to help themselves, make sure everyone gets one, to have fun, and suddenly it’s Christmas on a dingy summer afternoon. – The father and son eventually get into the car and drive away while the kids wave and smile and run off to play, the intersection of lives ending, the new journey for father and son beginning, their trek only a busted tie rod away from travel to travail to conceivably even tragedy.
It’s a small scene, but the ‘make the best of things’ moment is raw and wry and resonant and makes you smile with a watery eye, like the film itself; making the familiar beautifully exotic and pass-over people full of heart, contradiction, dimension, and soul.
And Willem DaFoe, he is throughout the film the best cinema normal guy likely experienced in a long time; stoically charismatic, put-upon, street smart, vigilant, ironic, compassionate, the working class hero that’s something we all seek to be and might sometimes achieve. – Life as it is as well as it can be.
I don’t really do film reviews as a writing exercise. But when something registers and stokes, you want to turn the like-minded and kindred spirits in your sphere on to it. – This is this year’s ‘you might dig this’. Happy Holidays. – Am looking forward to seeing it again and likely always will.
MKW | 3 sessions. 1 h per. Gentleman's C.