Co-Writer/Director Sean Baker
I have very mixed feelings about this film, and have grown to appreciate it more after a second screening. It’s a tough to watch the daily existence of the residents of a cheap motel in Orlando near Disney World by focusing on poorly parented young children running wild through the environs, and a few of the parents who are barely making a living and barely able to. By the end of the film, when authorities separate the child Moonee (the staggeringly good Brooklynn Prince) from her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), even a sense of relief is curbed by the additional dread that there is little hope Moonee will grow into anything else than someone like her mother – irresponsible, reckless, incapable of raising a child, but likely to having to as a single mother with no education or skills.
I couldn’t help being saddened and frankly disgusted by how the children were so poorly parented by these adults, virtually all of them women in such abject poverty and with hardly any education or skills. Halley goes from being an out of work topless dancer, to selling perfume to locals staying at a nearby resort, then to prostitution in the room where she and Moonee live while the child takes a bath. She adds thievery to her mix, stealing Disney World entry bracelets from one John and selling them at a discount.
The only main characters who even have a respectable job are Halley’s fellow motel neighbor/friend Ashley who works at a nearby waffle house, and Bobby the motel manager played by Willem DaFoe. He’s a decent guy having to deal with people in hard circumstances and he has very little leeway, but is generally empathetic and compassionate, even going out of his way to watching out for the kids.
The overall sense is of the inevitability of people’s situations and the lack of hope in their daily existence. Since the kids are so young (6-8 years old) what we see in their scenes are mostly playing and mischief, which would feel more lighthearted than it does since the mischief they get into is often on the edge of serious trouble. I felt an almost constant tension that these kids were about to get seriously hurt or killed or stolen, with hardly an adult even nearby to mitigate the circumstances. The kids even burn down an abandoned apartment building!
There are some interesting technical elements to the film. The look of it, emphasizing the gaudy colors of the theme park which seemingly pervade every building no matter how mundane, is great. The film uses the Kool and the Gang song Celebrate, to excellent effect in the opening, but has no score until the final sequence. That ending is a fantasy scene that is offered as reality, but it cheapens all the grit and stark realism in which the film has been steeped up until then. I felt it’s a bad choice by Mr. Baker, whose previous Tangerine showcased stark reality to such great effect, as virtually all of this film does.
It’s hard for me to excitedly recommend this film because of its very difficult subject matter, and I feel much like I did after seeing Tangerine. I appreciate the effort, but not sure I was watching work by a filmmaker who knows what he wanted to say, and instead was just happy to show us these lives on the edge. But how this film left me feeling and how it continues to stay with me despite my misgivings, may be enough for Baker, or for any filmmaker, to hope for. Should See