Look, when it comes to Willem Wednesdays, I’ve dropped the ball. There is a serious Willem backlog to report on and they will come, but for now it is essential that you hear about a great new Willem for 2017. Not Murder on the Orient Express (although Willem subverts his own shaky history with German accents well in Branagh’s Superhero for Old People movie), rather, Willem comes through on indie heartthrob Sean Baker’s latest, the gorgeously shot 35mm wonder, The Florida Project.
You can see why Baker, renowned user of non-actors, would here go for one of the most seasoned pros in the business. The face of Willem embodies the margins. Lived in, jagged, it’s a face with a history, which Baker exploits to great effect here. Willem is down to earth than usual. In heightening his easy charm Baker gets closer to the real Willem.
Sean Baker’s empathetic films, including Tangerine and the seriously underrated Starlet, belong to the same school as American Indies like Spring Breakers and American Honey. Plastic colours, a restless camera, engagement with contemporary trash culture: music, language, what motivates young people. But Baker has a rigorous attention to heart, avoiding the ironic detachment that many of his contemporaries trade in. His films have a political purpose but attention is always given to character detail. It is from here that meaning arises.
There is a pitch-perfect lack of exposition. Background details about these characters only reveal themselves if pertinent to the scene. This highlights the universality of the story and removes barriers between audience and character that are created by artificial dialogue or awkward plot development. In fact, there is little plot beyond vignettes of a summer at The Magic Castle motel through the eyes of a six-year-old, her struggling mother, and Dafoe’s motel manager. The setting begins to take on a mythic life of its own, purposely resembling a social housing estate, a world unto its own which traps the characters.
If Baker doesn’t address current socio-economic issues directly, it is because nothing actually changes for the residents of The Magic Castle. The Disneyland Project has pushed Orlando residents into a Project of their own, despised by tourists and shut off from a chance at prosperity by the larger corporate interests that have monopolised the area. One could see a neat ironic parallel there with Native American peoples, though corporate America chooses ghettoisation rather than slaughter for their own people. It is through the plain depiction of his characters and their landscape that Baker politicises his film. There is a cumulative power to what he depicts, not unlike the early films of Ken Loach or the Italian Neorealist masterpieces of Vittorio De Sica.
Like that canonised movement, to which Baker is obviously in thrall in his depiction of oppressed and forgotten communities, The Florida Project is both a remarkable piece of social realist storytelling and a timeless fable. As a Willem Dafoe fan, it is great to see him put in another all-time performance. As a fan of movies, The Florida Project is a bolt of lightning that puts to shame on those who proclaim the American cinema to be a wasteland.