It’s almost impossible to find a truly fresh take on American life after more than a century of cinema, but with his first three films filmmaker Sean Baker has managed to present slices of life from the underbelly of society that are often if not completely overlooked.
His 2012 debut “Starlet” depicted the unlikely friendship between a young female con artist/porn star and an elderly woman she felt guilty for deceiving, and featured a stunning performance from 8-year-old Besedka Johnson in the one and only movie role of her life.
His 2015 follow-up, “Tangerine,” depicted a comedic day in the life of transsexual prostitutes on Santa Monica Boulevard as one attempts to track down her boyfriend after learning he cheated on her. The film drew widespread attention for being the first feature film to be shot entirely on an iPhone, but the surprisingly rich visuals only reinforced Baker as a director with a unique vision.
His latest, “The Florida Project,” builds on his ultra-realistic, cinema verite approach while taking the action out of Los Angeles and following a group of poor children through a long and lazy summer while they’re stuck living with their largely irresponsible parents in a cheap motel in Orlando. Baker pulls off a remarkable feat here, as the minimal plot seems to richochet among random incidents, yet builds to an emotionally resonant ending that will be hard for viewers to shake.
“Florida” largely centers on a trio of 7-year-old kids led by a girl named Moonee who engage in mischievous activities such as spitting on cars from the balcony of their motel and panhandling change to buy ice cream cones.
The kids have humorously foul mouths, developing their bad behavior by having almost no supervision from their parents.
Moonee’s mom is a stripper with tattoos and a bad green dye job in her hair, and the other parents are barely more respectable. The one true authority figure in the entire film is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe as a kindhearted middle-aged man who wants the best for his tenants but is always just one step ahead of complete anarchy breaking out in the complex. The childhood mecca of Disney World is in the same city, just miles away, but these children may as well be living on the other side of the planet.
Dafoe is the one recognizable actor in the cast, building on Baker’s tendency to hire complete unknowns in the interest of immersing viewers in his characters’ lives. It’s a beautiful performance that combines world-weary exasperation with genuine concern for the kids, which most clearly emerges when he has to handle a creepy old man who appears on the property and shows too much interest in the young residents.
Bobby is also the key to leading viewers into the deeper point of “Florida”: showing the lives of people teetering on the edge of homelessness as they hustle to pay the weekly rent on a motel room. Moonee’s mom not only strips (that job is discussed, not shown), but also buys cheap perfume wholesale and shakes down tourists to buy bottles at a profit. Always a day late in paying the rent, she tries to charm Bobby into greater understanding, but eventually true reckoning is heading her way.
“Florida” was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, both for Baker’s ability to draw vibrant performances from totally unknown children and young adults, and for shining a light on the silent American epidemic of people who are living one wrong step away from homelessness. While nearly everyone knows someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, “Florida” reveals what it’s like to survive without an actual paycheck at all.
The seemingly meandering pace of “Florida” makes this a film that the masses will overlook, but those who can handle arthouse movies and give it a chance will be richly rewarded with a new viewpoint on life and an appreciation for what they have. I’m giving it a B because it can be boring and slow at times, but those who are aware of that aspect and check it out anyway will find “Florida” to be one cinematic destination worth visiting Grade: B
Stars: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan
Length: 114 minutes
Directed by: Martin Campbell
The attempted comeback of Jackie Chan forgets everything that made him fun in the past. He’s dour throughout and looks half-asleep, and most of his stunts are obviously handled by a double. He plays a seemingly meek London restaurant owner who seeks revenge after a revived IRA terror group kills his daughter in a bombing. Not one moment of this is fun, and the score is so bad you’ll want to puncture your eardrums. Perhaps the worst movie of the year.. Grade: F
Stars: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Doug Liman
This exciting and funny action comedy is also the bizarre true-life tale of Barry Seal, an airline pilot who found himself recruited to make illegal flights in the 1980s by both the CIA and the Medellin drug cartel. The complications and conflicts that Barry finds himself in are unpredictable from start to finish, and Cruise is a joy to watch in his most human role in 15 years. Grade: A
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell
Length: 121 minutes
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Recounting the 1972 showdown between female tennis champ Billie Jean King and former male champ Bobby Riggs designed to show that men were superior athletes, this rousing and funny true story also has a lot of emotional heft as it depicts King internal conflicts regarding her sexual orientation. The movie has great performances and a terrific score, while the directors keep the balls in the air for a game-set-match winner. Grade: A
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Stars: Taran Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum
Length: 141 minutes
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
This sequel to the 2015 surprise hit spy comedy “Kingsman: The Secret Service” tries to follow the idea that “bigger is better” but comes up somewhat short. Big names like Moore and Tatum are added to the cast but do almost nothing, and there’s a long middle stretch without any action, but the parts that work are great enough to make this worth the watch for action comedy fans. Grade: B
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Leberher, Finn Wolfhard
Length: 135 minutes
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel finally hits the big screen in the first of a planned two-part adaptation, mixing plenty of inventive scares with an affecting and funny group of 13-year-old outsiders in 1980s small-town Maine who have to team up to battle a demonic clown that’s killing children. Muschietti avoids exploiting the gruesome moments, making this a fun ride as much as it is a scarefest. Grade: A