Friday night at our house is a night to cocoon. The week’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are (hopefully) behind us, and we can rest secure in the knowledge that the next day is Saturday, which means a pause in the week’s frenetic activity. I should add a word of explanation here: my wife and I are both career teachers --- she works with elementary kids, while my scholars are of the high school variety --- and while working with pre/post adolescents is rewarding, it’s also both mentally exhausting and emotionally draining. Hence Friday night being a time to relaaaaxxxxxx.
Frequently on those Friday nights, we curl up after dinner to watch a film, and so it was this weekend. While our viewing choices aren’t always light ‘n frothy, we’re also not always of a mind to watch anything too… well, what shall I say? Grim? Un-redemptive? So you may find it amusing that this week I chose for us to watch The Florida Project, a film released in October 2017. (In my own defense, I had merely heard a glowing radio review of the film, which, unusually for me, led me to go out and buy a copy.)
Why would you find my choice funny? Well, for those unaware of The Florida Project, it’s an unrelentingly grey and gritty portrait of grinding modern poverty (ooh, nice alliteration) as seen through the eyes of Moonee, a six-year-old girl living with her young mother Halley in a rundown Florida motel near Disney World. Moonee and her friends are… well, essentially, they’re feral children, parented by adults possessing almost no parenting skills, since they’re only just out of (probably grim) childhoods of their own. Halley also has no job, no real marketable skills and no idea how to escape the cycle of hopeless poverty she and Moonee are mired in. Willem Dafoe is marvelous as the world-weary but caring manager of the motel, and the actors playing Moonee and Halley are also excellent. But it ain’t a happy story… as a film, it’s kind of the anti-Pretty Woman, where Julia Robert’s prostitute is rescued by Richard Gere’s wealthy saviour. But then, Pretty Woman is really just a dressed-up fairy tale; there aren’t any wealthy saviours in The Florida Project and there’s certainly no happy resolution. It ends (spoiler alert) with Moonee being apprehended by child welfare authorities after Halley has resorted to prostitution in a desperate attempt to come up with money to support them… and Moonee, devastated, bolts and runs off with her closest friend to Disney World because… well, we’re not entirely sure why. One last time with her friend? A brief escape from reality? Mindless panic? Whatever the reason, the final frames show them running through ‘the happiest place on Earth’ (yeah, I know that’s technically Disneyland in California, but I’m assuming Walt would want to extend the moniker to its Florida twin as well), which under other circumstances would be funny, but here, given how Moonee’s life is rapidly disintegrating (as is Halley’s), the irony, intentional or otherwise, is a little much.
35 years ago, Paramount released a film titled simply Testament. It, too was a gritty tale, dealing with the aftereffects of a nuclear war in which a mother attempts to hold her family together as they all slowly sicken and die of radiation poisoning. Like The Florida Project, Testament is an absolutely superb film… but you can’t help wonder why anyone would make it, much less why people would knowingly go and see it… unless they’re in the mood for a good dose of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I. Is it thought-provoking? Yes. Is it instructive? Certainly. Is it, on one level, a refreshing change from the mindless drivel film studios tend to foist on us nowadays? Without a doubt. But is it entertaining? Well… yes, it is, sorta, but not Saturday-afternoon-matinee-with-popcorn entertaining. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.
Look, you say impatiently, you can’t necessarily have it both ways: simultaneously thought-provoking AND entertaining. Ah ha! I reply, but do we need to leave our audience without redemption and resolution? How would you have felt if The Lord of the Rings ended with Sam and Frodo still on the slopes of Mount Doom? There they are, our two intrepid heroes, gazing dully up at the tunnel to the Sammath Naur, where they can finally, after indescribable suffering and toil, destroy the Ring, and… the film fades to black?
Real-life situations don’t always end with happiness and resolution. I get that. Life has a way of being both messy and unresolved. But… do we want our stories to conclude that way? Schindler’s List was a grey and gritty film… but it had both resolution and redemption. We could at least leave the theatre feeling… somewhat hopeful.
Like I said, I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. I’d be interested to hear your comments.