The Florida Project (2017)

Youth is the key ingredient to the court jester defiance of D.I.Y. punk as a culture & as a philosophy. There’s a defiant, punk as fuck spirit that drives Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine in a way that made it an easy pick for one of my favorite films of 2015 and one of the 2010s releases I’d most want to watch with the unintentional godfather of youthful punk defiance, John Waters (Wetlands would be up there as well). Baker distills that youthful, punk defiance even further in his follow-up to that iPhone-shot whirlwind of sex workers on the war path by looking to even younger, more defiant protagonists: actual children. The Florida Project is already facing early waves of backlash for its cultural sins as poverty porn (and it’s honestly a miracle that Tangerine largely escaped the same). These accusations are understandable given the film’s children-in-peril setting in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida, but they presume that the film’s sole goal is to merely report that these impoverished communities exist just outside the tourist industry playgrounds they surround. The Florida Project is not the miserable, poverty-exploiting drama that reading frames it to be. Rather, it captures the defiant punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in those insular, run-down motel communities. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults.

Willem Dafoe (in Willem Dafriend mode here) stars as the only recognizable face in a crowd of “nonprofessional” actors (give or take a Macon Blair or a Caleb Landy Jones), mostly children & young women. His exasperated motel manager, Bobby, is a reluctant caretaker of the single mother families that rent his rooms by the week. He attempts to maintain a professional emotional distance from these near-homeless families, whom he occasionally has to police & evict, but fails miserably due to direct contact & a soft heart. Like all adults & authority figures, however, Bobby is only a periphery presence to be mocked & subverted by the punk-as-fuck little rascals that play throughout the purple pastel stucco buildings that cater to Disney World tourist runoff. Their ring leader is our POV character, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a dangerously sharp child who runs wild around the motel as if it were a playground, with the approval of her sex worker mother. Instead of solemnly gawking at her small family’s limited means, The Florida Project celebrates the minor successes Moonee pulls off in the tropical Florida heat: scheming tourists out of ice cream money, crashing fancier hotels’ breakfast buffets, initiating newcomer kids into the joys of smashing the fragile semblance of routine normality authority figures like Bobby are tasked to maintain, spitting on cars. It’s no mistake that the opening credits are set to the disco hit “Celebration,” since the entire intent of the film is to celebrate good times, even in the face of the harsher realities at the story’s fringes. Although Moonee & her cronies are financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park of its own.

Many reviewers are discussing The Florida Project in the same modern American poverty documentation terms used to describe last year’s (much less jubilant) American Honey. I believe the film’s vibe is much more in line with the young court jester punks of titles like We Are the Best!, Daisies, Female Trouble, etc. There’s certainly a detectable quality of documentation of hyper-specific “at risk” Floridians who live at the tourism industry’s fringes, following them with a detailed eye as they pass theme park-style gift shops & listen to trap music on smartphone speakers. Baker’s filmmaking style is much less kinetic & haphazard here than it was in the iPhone-shot sugar rush of Tangerine, but the rich 35mm colors & fixed camera precision of The Florida Project only stabilizes & beautifies the world of its children-in-peril punks enough to emphasize their exuberance & imagination. The pure, dangerous joy these kids find in the palm tree-lined parking lots of an urban Florida wasteland is infectiously genuine. The movie doesn’t ask for your pity, but rather a hearty cry of “Up the punks!” and recognition that “All Cops Are Bastards,” even well-meaning motel managers. The court jester youthfulness of punk requires you to take no authority or life challenge too seriously (even though situations are often physically & emotionally dangerous here) and the little kids who run free in The Florida Project’s miniature domain laugh in the face of it all without caution and without apology.

-Brandon Ledet

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

Actor Macon Blair has made a name for himself in his two collaborations with up & coming filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin & Green Room, which has left him associated with a slick, low budget style of edge-of-your-seat thrillers. As a first time director in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Blair uses that reputation to his full advantage. He applies the same eye for real world detail and believably brutal bursts of unexpected violence that have distinguished Saulnier’s films to a refreshingly new genre context those two works only hint at: comedy. The violence in Macon Blair’s filmmaking debut is just as swift, brutal, and authentic as it feels in either Blue Ruin or Green Room, but is somehow adapted to a dark comedic tone that evokes howls of laughter instead of fits of nail-biting. Like a subdued, small scale version of The Nice Guys, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore finds a way to continuously surprise & delight, despite depicting realistic, out of left field brutality.

Melanie Lynskey stars as an Average American Woman, seemingly milquetoast in every way except that she can’t let go of petty micro-aggressions. Book spoilers, untended dog poop, obnoxious car exhaust, getting cut off at the grocery store checkout: our modern day anti-hero is disgusted by a myriad of tiny displays of selfishness, rudeness, and greed. She declares, “Everyone is an asshole . . . and dildos.” This Falling Down style of railing against modernity finally breaks her psyche when her home is looted by lowlife meth addicts and the police show little to no interest in helping her retrieve her stolen things: a laptop, her grandmother’s antique silver, and (maybe most importantly) her mood stabilizing medication. This inspires her to embark on a vigilante mission along with a similarly self-righteous neighbor (Elijah Wood in some convincing metalhead Napoleon Dynamite cosplay) to take down the den of meth addict thieves herself. Antics ensue. Horrifically violent, exponentially snowballing antics.

Because Melanie Lynskey’s audience-centering protagonist is unmedicated and increasingly unhinged, there’s a heightened, almost cartoonishly surreal sense of reality in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. The film’s vigilantism is anchored to a believable real world setting, but there’s something absolutely absurd about the way every hunch its protagonist entertains immediately pays off and she swiftly finds her way back to the creeps who invaded her home. The meth head monsters she finds at the end of this trail of neatly laid-out clues are headed by none other than The Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow (who was fantastic in the recent horror anthology Southbound), presenting such a grotesque personification of Small Town Evil that the film takes on almost a religious parable level of simplistic exaggeration. Elijah Wood’s sidekick vigilante is just as clearly coded as a Force of Good with an unbreakable moral code, no matter how much you underestimate him based in his rat tail, his nunchucks, and his lackluster “hacking” skills. The criminals are just as amateur and unprepared as “the good guys” in this allegory about the messiness of revenge and by the time the whole ordeal becomes a violent showdown in a cookie cutter McMansion & the nearby woods, every last player is made to look like a (bloodied, exhausted) fool.

As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often is, Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, and smoking meth in the woods all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle, not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes” boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone. It’s rare that modern comedies are as tightly constructed or as visually striking as Blair’s debut. Each scene feels meticulously scripted, competently executed, and necessary to a larger plot with an inevitably bloody climax. In a post-Apatow world where we’re so used to comedies sprawling into overlong, heavily improvised tangential bits, it’s refreshing to see I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore function like an intricate jigsaw puzzle where every piece has its place in the larger picture. It also helps that the shocks of the film’s violence and the humor of its heightened sense of absurdity cut through any of its lost prestige as a product that was dumped straight to Netflix after a very brief festival run. It’s a great film no matter what circumstances dictated its (practically non-existent) theatrical release and I left it newly excited for the careers of several people I already knew I loved: Yow, Blair, Wood, and Lynskey. They’re all in top form.

-Brandon Ledet