STARRING: Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Melora Walters, Aiden Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
DIRECTED BY: Azazel Jacobs
WRITTEN BY: Azazel Jacobs
Later, I dipped back into the Official Competition strand that has been so good to me up to now with the middle child of the inadvertent A24 Day I ended up having, The Lovers, the latest from writer-director Azazel Jacobs, released into American theatres back in May yet still without a UK release date. It stars Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as Mary and Michael, a long-married couple for whom the passion died out long ago. Whenever they are home, they almost never talk and can barely stand each other; when they’re not home, they’re making up lame excuses to feed the other in order to avoid going home, whilst toiling away in soul-crushing cubical-based office jobs they hate. Unbeknownst to one another, they’ve both been cheating on the other in committed states for years now; he with ballet teacher Lucy (Melora Walters), she with novelist Robert (Aiden Gillen). They’re even preparing to leave each other for their prospective side-pieces, planning on waiting until after their son Joel (Tyler Ross) and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula) visit for the weekend. Except that one morning, they wake up facing each other, inches away from each other’s lips, and suddenly that passion has returned with a vengeance.
What we have here, in simple terms, is a Woody Allen drama crossed with a screwball comedy, now making it two films at this festival that make better Woody Allen films than anything Allen himself has put out recently (the other being Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits), particularly emphasised by Mandy Hoffman’s grand sweeping score that stays on just the right side of overbearing. The central question that hangs over the film is simple yet also complex: where has this sudden passion come from? Is it merely infatuation born from a certain particularly good morning, destined to blow over the second that Mary and Michael hit a rough patch again? Is it based on adrenaline, the thrill of cheating and knowing that the end is in sight, so getting off on the knowledge that it’s coming to a point? Or is it the opposite, a sudden inadvertently-shared realisation that they are almost a week away from never seeing each other again and being terrified of that idea? Or was it really there all along, but in ways that are deeper-set and messed-up than either are willing to admit?
The Lovers does have an answer, but it takes its time exploring all of those ideas fully, and settles on the one I actually least expected. Yet there’s something weirdly sweet about this, in spite of Mary and Michael thoughtlessly hurting a lot of people and each other with what they are doing, which can be put down to Letts and Winger’s surprising amounts of chemistry. It’s an understated yet often uproarious film, again in the vein of Woody Allen’s better dramas, and many of its best scenes are both humorous and emotionally affecting. That rather measured pace and required waiting period before the film starts to zig does mean that it takes a while to get going, but The Lovers is a lot of fun and another strong Competition showing this year.
The Florida Project
STARRING: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite
DIRECTED BY: Sean Baker
WRITTEN BY: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Finally for today: Sean Baker is the real deal, everyone. I know that Tangerine was not his first film – nowhere near it, and that’s before we even bring Greg the Bunny into the conversation – but Tangerine was a shot of adrenaline into the Indie dramedy landscape, a work of screwball mania with extreme empathy and joy for a subset of people who are often demonised or the butt of hateful jokes whenever they’re depicted by most mainstream media, if at all (Trans sex workers). Its big crossover selling points, that it was entirely shot on iPhones and produced by the ever-prolific Duplass Brothers, ended up being trojan horses for a largely loud, sweet representation of people that America often, at “best,” merely tries to wash its hands of. And if you had any doubt that Tangerine was some kind of fluke, The Florida Project is here to rebuke those false notions effortlessly.
Our location is the Magic Castle Motel in Florida, just a few miles outside of Walt Disney World Resort. In the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth,” are a few motels just like the Magic Castle that largely house the unemployable and wayward. Single mothers and their children who are holding down low-paying dead-end jobs or hustling tourists for the cash required to pay their rent, living week to week yet trying to allow their children the opportunity to grow up happy and provided for. The Motel is looked after by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who puts up an air of authority and boundaries, yet ultimately cares far more about his tenants than he lets on, so long as he gets paid at a reasonable time and nothing goes on that could attract police sirens to his place of business. Our eyes, however, are largely those of Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), whose mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is practically still a kid herself and was recently made redundant at her job as a stripper.
Moonee is a troublesome, frequently gobby, and mischievous girl, introduced by engaging in a spitting contest on the car of the tenant at a different nearby motel, and prone to scrounging up money from tourists with her friends to pay for an ice cream to share. She is frequently unsupervised at all hours of the day, and Halley does not exactly curb her daughter’s worst instincts when she is around, so Mooney has to make her own fun, but she’s never really brought down by this fact. She’s an often-bored child, but she is an excitable and happy one, more than willing to make the best of her environment with what and who is around her. Times can be hard, things can get bleak, and her actions can have consequences she’s not fully aware of, but she’s still naïve and innocent enough to keep soldering through, even whilst the rest of us can see the looming heartbreak on the horizon.
The fact is that Florida, and America at large, don’t want to think about people like Moonee and Halley. They see them as products of their own foolish decisions, people who have thrown their lives away, of no use to anyone, and displaying no compunctions for improvement. And whilst Halley and Moonee can absolutely be stubborn and pig-headed and confrontational and make things far worse than they need to be as a result of their impulsiveness (occasionally bordering on recklessness), they are still people. This is the real forgotten America. Not those racist anti-intellectual jackholes yelling on TV about political correctness going mad and an imaginary bogeyman coming to take all their jobs, but those for whom the American Dream, and Capitalism as a whole, has failed. Who have to resort to desperate lengths to make rent for the week that lead to them being ostracised by the very people they had previously found a kinship with. Those with no support system, either despairing at it all and regressing mentally or being too young to understand. Those who live in the shadow of America’s biggest symbol of Capitalist success, yet are only ever acknowledged by outsiders who either turn up there by complete mistake or encounter them practically begging and resultantly take pity on them.
Baker brings those same reservoirs of sympathy and empathy to The Florida Project that he brought to Tangerine, backed up by a largely amateur cast who are all completely sensational, especially the children. The laidback, episodic slice-of-life nature means that this is a film you have to surrender yourself to, accept that this is less about the slow journey towards a pivotal moment that will shatter Mooney’s innocence forever, and more about the digressions and day-to-day nature of her existence. As a result, it’s arguably too long and tried my patience every now and again, but, quite frankly, I cannot think of a single sequence to cut. To cut or streamline The Florida Project in any way would be to completely change the experience it provides, and it would be inarguably for the worse. In many ways – in the shaggy length, in the subject matter of forgotten America, in the assimilation and embrace of Hip Hop culture into the lives of the lowest economic class – I was reminded of Andrea Arnold’s sprawling laconic epic American Honey.
But what separates American Honey from The Florida Project is simple and impossible to deny: joy. American Honey is fundamentally a story of abuse, both from within and outside those forgotten by America. But The Florida Project is a giant, smile-inducing, joyous ode of a thing. It’s a frequently beautiful movie, whose heart aches palpably throughout, and even when things get too heavy, there’s always a place that Mooney can escape to, one that’s closer even than the giant amusement park that looms in the far distance. That’s what hope looks like to a child, and it’s the one thing that America cannot erase from her.
Tomorrow: the Festival’s press screenings wind down with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.