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The Florida Project is an empathy-provoking series of vignettes on childhood

Director Sean Baker doesn’t always make it easy for us to like these characters, but any moral judgements are reserved only for snobs and hypocrites.

“I Decided to Be Awesome Today” reads the slogan on the banana-yellow T-shirt worn by six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). It all depends on how you define awesomeness. In the opening minutes of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, she and her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), hang over the balcony at the dilapidated Futureland motel (“Stay in the Future Today”) and spit on a parked car, then berate the owner when she threatens to tell their parents: “Try it, bitch, we don’t live here!”  Don’t children say the most darling things?

In fact, Moonee resides with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a single cluttered room in the Magic Castle motel next door, under the protective gaze of the genial manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). This is a pay-by-the-week flophouse but the film ensures its name is not entirely ironic. The cinematographer Alexis Zabe (who shot the gorgeous Silent Light) works here in wide-eyed 35mm to make the motel complex look practically edible. Its walls turn from purple to pale violet depending on the intensity of the sunlight. When the sky blushes mauve near the end of the film, it feels like a sorry attempt at mimicry. Nature comes off second best.

Smooth Steadicam tracking shots perform a similarly transformative trick on the characters, lending them an elegant dignity. In common with the TV series Shameless, the picture encourages its audience to empathise with people we might not choose as neighbours. Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, are drawn to the disenfranchised; their last film, the fruity Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone, was populated by transgender prostitutes and their johns.

In The Florida Project, the marginalisation is physical as well as economic. Halley and Moonee live a mile outside Disney World, near the turn-off for Seven Dwarfs Lane. (The movie takes its name from Walt Disney’s working title for the theme park.) Their room overlooks a tourists’ helipad, and mother and daughter are careful to give the finger to every passing chopper. It’s practically a superstition.

The film takes the form of a series of vignettes on childhood, like a below-the-breadline version of Truffaut’s Small Change. Dramatic moments are treated with disarming levity. When a derelict house is burning, Halley gets Moonee to pose in front of it for a picture, whooping at her: “This is so much better than TV!” What she doesn’t know is that Moonee and Scooty started the fire. Scooty’s mother only cottons on to his guilt because he won’t leave the motel room to come and cheer on the flames like any normal kid.

Baker’s work with his largely inexperienced cast is relaxed and playful, and the film’s tone is fairly assured. He doesn’t always make it easy for us to like these characters but any moral judgements are reserved only for snobs and hypocrites, such as the tourist who visits Magic Castle for sex while deriding the place as a dump.

Baker’s one failure of nerve comes in the scene in which Bobby escorts from the premises a suspected paedophile. The character’s transparent function in the film is to distract us from any queasiness we might feel about Halley’s sexualised parenting; he’s like the token woman in a buddy movie who is there to prove that the heroes aren’t gay.

Halley encourages Moonee to work on her twerking and devises a game called Swimsuit Selfies when she’s really taking photos of herself for an escort website. But Moonee’s remarkable self-possession is evidence enough of her wellbeing. Uncouth she may be but she is careful to thank Scooty when he gives her a leg-up through her motel-room window.

And she has no problem sharing with her playmates. A single ice-cream, paid for by pretending to be asthmatic and begging for change, is passed back and forth between them, all the way down to the last nub of the cone. Then they skip off home from Twistee Treat, a kiosk in the shape of an ice-cream, past the gaudy painted dome of Orange World and the gift shop presided over by a giant omniscient plastic wizard. Bursting out of the awning with his sceptre, he is the Dr TJ Eckleburg of this feverish American dream. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia