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Seeing director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project reminded me quite unabashedly that there is more than one way to tackle the art and craft of filmmaking. In the United States, because filmmaking is so rooted to this day in story telling techniques that can be traced back to the so-called ‘Hollywood style’, The Florida Project will certainly make FP-002some people squirm in their seats because they are not delivered the well-defined story memes heaped up from Hollywood directors like so many pre-packaged and colorful Gummy Bears the viewer might be inclined to purchase prior to entering the theater.

As far as mainstream movies are concerned, Hollywood is generally more worried about box office than art.  In seeming rebellion, The Florida Project reminds me of an alternative universe of storytellers that countered the Hollywood style in the 50’s and 60’s, including but not limited to European directors such as Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittoria De Sica, and others. And in that mix we must also include Asian directors such as Ozu.

These similarities take their shape in terms of both the way the film is shot and edited, as well as its content. The Florida Project was shot and edited in a distinctly non-American style, and its content focuses on the shadow world of poverty that many Americans would prefer to ignore.

In terms of how the film is shot, I was immediately struck by the emphasis on what can only be termed mise-en-scene – literally, the use of the frame and the compositional elements displayed to make a statement, usually using a static, wide shot. The constant wide shots of the film’s child characters marching past Floridian architectural oddities shows the indelible influence of environment and context on the children. It forces us into the moment, rather than moving us kinetically into the next scene via relentless editing.

Mise-en-scene, as such, is a political statement. It tells the viewer that the director wants you to linger on the scene and reflect on it, rather than move on to the next item in the shot list and not think about what you’re seeing too much. A master at this technique was the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

Ozu’s Cinematography (from the review of Early Spring)

Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.

It is precisely this effect of ‘rooted in the environment’ that Sean Baker explores with The Florida Project. The use of mise-en-scene, combined with the fact that the film is virtually without music, certainly displays one of the most rebellious directorial styles seen in the United States recently, certainly since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – a film that also showed a lot of European influence, including most predominantly the emphasis on architecture (also found in The Florida Project) so prevalent in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. You can read my review of The Tree of Life here.

That said, Mr. Baker is not quite as serious in intent as Malick, and does seem to want to make audiences happy, and does so with a technique often employed by Francois Truffaut (for example in The 400 Blows) and Vittorio De Sica (in Bicycle Thief) – that is, the prevalence of cute. And even beyond cute, The Florida Project displays a Christ-like innocence that evokes pity.

Cuteness, innocence and pity are the elixir that binds the viewer to the screen with The Florida Project where they might otherwise turn away. A similar tactic was used in the film Little Miss Sunshine, but that film had a much more conventional shooting style than The Florida Project, and was also more cynical in its conclusions about human nature. The primary purveyor of this innocence is The Florida Project is the central child character, Moonee, as played by Brooklynn Prince. Moonee, if taken as a symbol, is the lunar child, the mysterious nature that pervades The Florida Project and would certainly overwhelm the machinations of suburban bliss laid out by mankind should we ever die off of from a plague or other calamity. Moonee’s mother, played with effervescent verve by newcomer Bria Vinaite, is also fundamentally innocent – a passionate activist for her child’s wellbeing – as much a product of an unfair system as anything to do with her own failings.

It is no accident, therefore, that the children want to burn down the house in the cookie cutter suburb that has turned into a dilapidated wasteland. Moonee and her friends, in burning down the house, show that they are in alignment with nature, not with the supposed security of the corporate human as displayed by the ‘normal’ people who swamp into Disney World – a manufactured realm of make-believe that the children of the welfare hotels cannot afford and must therefore turn constantly to their own imaginations to replace. And yet, their ‘crime’ is imbued with innocence – no one is hurt, and perhaps if all the abandoned homes were burned down, nature could more effectively reclaim its rightful status.

The father figure of the film is the ever-present motel manager, played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe’s character introduces us to the implications of human choice that Mr. Baker FB-003wishes us to contemplate. While the environment and context in The Florida Project may be quite cold, and the omniscient helicopter ‘observer’ of the entire human enterprise that drones endlessly in the background quite detached and empty, human choice is nonetheless a key factor in introducing compassion into the equation. The manager, then, is closer to God than is the environment and nature, which again is shown to be irrevocably detached. God – should he or she be presumed to exist – emerges from nature as a human construct.  The film compels us to conclude that human beings can create good where it otherwise might not exist.

At the end of the film, Moonee’s friend takes her on an excursion back to American normalcy, which to the poor children of the welfare hotel is the fantasy of Disney World and Cinderella’s Castle – the proverbial destination for all young American girls. The fact that the girls never really reach the Castle is, it seems to me, intended – for it is the idea of the Castle, not so much the Castle itself,  that eggs the girls on to their destination. It is the promise of the thing – not the thing itself – that motivates human beings. Seen in a larger context, it is the promise of hope and freedom that elevates people — that no matter how illogical and silly it may seem to cynics, hope is nonetheless a powerful motivator for the supposedly naïve people of the world who still need to believe in something.

For without hope, human beings cannot be said to be fully human. The Florida Project shows us how this truth still resides with us as much as it did a half century ago, or indeed a millennium ago, or even perhaps when human beings first looked out from FB-001over a hilltop, and saw the Promised Land beyond.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

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