The Florida Project ★★★★

Dafoe's Bobby may be my favourite character to arise from the last couple years of American cinema. It won't necessarily go down as one of the greatest performances in American cinema (neither showy nor developed), but it should go down as one of the classic roles, a character we still talk about decades from now, which Dafoe makes possible.

I'd wager a lot of us are more familiar with this world of budget motels than we'd care to admit. Of course, there is the holiday highway motor-inn dives we generously bemoan, cherishing and cultivating the bemusing cheapskate traps of the touristy experience. You know the place. You know the tricks. The destination prematurely shuddering into awkward view with a non-inviting facade to match the fallacious off-highway address. Remotely lured, the entrance vigorously downgrades all poor souls to a dead halt. One's hungry gaze trawls the open court slather of local wildlife. This creeping colony of dispirited shadowy battlers ambles about in senseless purgatory. Eyes worn eternally averted, typical regards a foreign custom. You feel the eyes burrowing into your neck. Vehicle cowers tensely, overripe with possessions. Prospect of vandalism intermingles obscurely in the air with an implacable, vicious pinch of yellowed fingers. These impulsions swirl, encircle forlorn figures as they dart in and out of view, clutching nondescript beers as greedily as baby bottles, cradled as last candles amidst humdrum bustle. Far off, a frozen food truck sidles to rest after another long haul, promptly snoring thunderingly at the horn. You tentatively unlock the room door and toe the sticky flooring, lest it carnivorously roots you to some long slow digestion. An axis of frail solace hovers between the palm fronds perched right outside the window, peering in at a co-themed bed cover. Beyond the fronds lie a totality of poor maintenance, a pool seldom cleaned (maybe once a season). If any hope remains, a long haul train abruptly enters frame and throttles the soul, interminably whipping a gazillion carriages to roaring oblivion, promising encore performances to follow in the dead of night. The shower curtains look so utterly depressed that they hardly qualify as inanimate.

That is the worst of the worst. But, like in The Florida Project, you also get the more communal terrain of the modern budget motel with standard, efficient facilities that don't look like some wilting, undead post-war bed & breakfast. For a few month period in 2015 I spent my weeknights in one of these whilst working in a different city, prior to relocating and renting. These places tend to be more efficient, familiar, franchised, hardly the nasty road surprise. The managers/innkeepers are sometimes angels (like Bobby), friendly busybodies always up for a chat, people you'll never forget for their handling of a difficult occupation. There are also the kids with faraway street urchin looks who break your heart. I remember preparing a meal after returning from work one night, and this little, ethnically ambiguous child slipped out of the cracks and asked if I was okay? I wanted to just hug him there and then for the next century. Kids with struggling mothers and others who could well be Jude St. Francis. There are also the women running away from abusive relationships, the dodgy druggies and pimps, the week commuters like myself, the recent-immigrant families, the interstate truckers, the one night football teams, etc. One can't help but refresh and enrich their humanity. And this was merely a prolonged window in passing, rather than any meaningful participation on struggle street.

Sean Baker, as demonstrated in his previous work Tangerine, fixates on lively sprites tenaciously eking out a bleak existence in the shadow of commercial illusion. This juxtaposition of those in the margins subsisting off scraps on the bauble fringe, locating joy, dignity and companionship where they can, however barbed, could warrant poverty-tourism criticism from some quarters, but it effectively works a treat. Like debut directors exploiting the opulence of casinos as a cheaply upgraded backdrop look, Baker posits unseen, desperate characters in familiar, even desirable locations. Child protagonists privy to down spiraling custody, facing ever dicier futures, is always a tough watch, but Baker gamely straddles the line with aplomb. Sure, these aren't necessarily professional actors, the script seems worked out in rehearsal, the personality is indulged, told to play large, but I'm fine with that. Whilst not quite as fly-on-the-wall and ambitiously epic as the comparable American Honey, The Florida Project consolidates and furthers Baker's demonstrated potential in Tangerine.

There is truth flowing through this film. All the residents. All the thoughts and conflicts flying through Bobby's head. All the thoughts and conflicts flying through the head of Moonie's mother. The direction choices. Saving Moonie's crying scene for the ending, where her sort-of childhood of acting up is afforded a moment of breaking down. There is life flowing through this film in a manner really seen in American cinema. There are heroic traits in many characters, running up against grim realities and businesses to run. Prior to social media, Baker's films would have been contained to underground American cinema, trapped in festivals. Today, his features tell public television slices of life which gladly blur the lines of cartoon and despair, thrive on that heroic duality. America's more audience-friendly, vivacious version of what Jia Zhangke is doing.