Laugh­ing the pain away at TIFF

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - GLOBE ARTS - KATE TAY­LOR ktay­lor@globe­and­mail.com

In a fes­ti­val full of de­spair­ing dra­mas, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project finds a wel­come bal­ance be­tween hu­mour and heav­i­ness

In the queues of fes­ti­val-go­ers snaking around the TIFF Bell Light­box, I don’t sup­pose there are many peo­ple who have ever lined up at food bank. With sin­gle tick­ets for the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val sell­ing for $20 or more, it seems safe to pre­sume there aren’t any pa­trons who are strug­gling to pay their weekly rent at a wel­fare ho­tel. But in­side the movie the­atre, au­di­ences may en­counter many peo­ple in dire straits.

My TIFF 2017 dance card was packed with movies built around char­ac­ters who were marginal­ized and im­pov­er­ished. There were two films lo­cated in flop houses and two where women took up – or were forced into – pros­ti­tu­tion, while men turned to crime or vi­o­lence. In an­other, the char­ac­ters lived in squalor on a run-down sheep farm. Some of these peo­ple were re­silient and in­ven­tive, but all of them were vul­ner­a­ble; many char­ac­ters were emo­tion­ally or phys­i­cally abused; sev­eral were also sex­u­ally as­saulted, al­though not usu­ally on screen.

All of these films had artis­tic merit, many were cre­ated by direc­tors en­dowed with ad­mirably un­wa­ver­ing vi­sions of what sto­ries they wanted to tell and how they wanted to tell them. Yet, in a fes­ti­val set­ting, the cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of all that pathos can be dis­heart­en­ing; you be­gin to feel more ex­hausted than en­light­ened, more an­noyed than em­pa­thetic.

That is why The Florida Project stood out so strik­ingly from the crowd: Sean Baker’s drama is set in a wel­fare mo­tel in the shadow of Florida’s Dis­ney World and cen­tres on six-year-old Moonee (played by the re­mark­able Brook­lynn Prince) and her mother Hal­ley (Bria Vi­naite), a 22-year-old un­em­ployed lap dancer. Their sit­u­a­tion is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly des­per­ate and Baker’s film is filled with telling mo­ments: At one point, Moonee asks why there is no pep­per­oni on the take­out pizza they are eat­ing on the bed in their cramped room, to which her mother replies, “Pep­per­oni costs money.”

But of­ten the film is a com­edy be­cause Baker was in­spired by the Our Gang movies, those Lit­tle

Ras­cals shorts of the 1920s and 1930s. He de­votes at least half of

The Florida Project to the an­tics of Moonee and her friends, the other kids who live in the mo­tel and in a sim­i­lar one next door. They spit on cars from bal­conies; they cat­call a nude sun­bather; they have con­tests to see who can pro­duce the best arm farts. And they scrounge change from passersby to buy ice cream or push their way to the front of the line when the mo­bile food bank comes to visit. Their en­ergy is ir­re­sistible, and the inat­ten­tive Hal­ley emerges as a lov­ing and sym­pa­thetic mother even if she is un­in­ter­ested in polic­ing Moonee’s hi­jinks – and can’t pro­vide the es­sen­tials of life.

The orig­i­nal Lit­tle Ras­cals films date to a pe­riod when it was still ac­cept­able to sen­ti­men­tal­ize poverty both in the cin­ema and in lit­er­a­ture. All those urchins and or­phans were chil­dren we would now call street kids or youth at risk. To­day, Hol­ly­wood only sen­ti­men­tal­izes wealth, en­shrin­ing movie char­ac­ters in leafy neigh­bour­hoods full of pic­turesque houses with sparkling kitchens, while de­pic­tions of real poverty are of­ten left to the in­de­pen­dent movie maker.

It’s a tricky thing to brings au­di­ences to those in­die films. Talk­ing about his film at TIFF this week (in an in­ter­view which will ap­pear in fuller de­tail in these pages when The Florida

Project is re­leased com­mer­cially), Baker called his job a bal­anc­ing act: “If you go one de­gree off in one di­rec­tion or an­other, the film could be very dis­re­spect­ful, very in­sult­ing. We are try­ing to show the real hu­mour of life, that peo­ple use hu­mour to cope with pain.”

His talk of bal­ance made me think of an­other TIFF ti­tle, Stronger, about Jeff Bau­man, the man who had both legs blown off by a ter­ror­ist bomb at the Boston Marathon in 2013. De­spite an up­lift­ing Hol­ly­wood end­ing, that film con­cen­trates on Bau­man’s work­ing-class Boston sur­round­ings and es­pe­cially the char­ac­ter of his foul-mouthed, hard-drink­ing mother. Fam­ily scream­ing matches are used as comic re­lief in the film. I thought di­rec­tor David Gor­don Green pulled it off, thanks mainly to a spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mance by Mi­randa Richard­son as the mother, but there’s a knife edge be­tween giv­ing an au­di­ence a break from a gru­elling story and sim­ply mock­ing the fam­ily’s hard-scrab­ble ex­is­tence.

Baker, mean­while, said he learned the im­por­tance of com­edy from his last film, Tan­ger­ine, about two trans­gen­der sex work­ers in Hol­ly­wood: “When we ap­plied a comedic style, we reached a greater au­di­ence.” He still gets mes­sages about the 2015 movie from view­ers telling him they never would have thought they could re­late to such out­sider char­ac­ters. You could com­plain that The

Florida Project is po­lit­i­cally naive; there are no vil­lains in the movie in which Willem Dafoe plays a hugely sym­pa­thetic mo­tel man­ager. Hal­ley is a vic­tim not of a sys­tem but of cir­cum­stances.

But view­ers will not be able to turn away from this film in de­spair. So, as The Florida Project floats out of TIFF on a wave of good­will and be­gins to touch au­di­ences across North Amer­ica, it is pos­si­ble it will be the cat­a­lyst for changes that might ac­tu­ally help the hid­den home­less of Florida.

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