The Florida Project Luridly Discolors the American Dream


Directed by Sean Baker
A24, 115 minutes, R (language, distress)

Few words in the English language vary so much in meaning according to context as "project." We use it to mean displaying an image, making our voice more forceful, or transferring our faults onto another. Change how you say it and it means a task and that one also has shadings, as in chosen hobbies, a work assignment, a personality in need of an upgrade, or an infrastructure undertaking. Of all its meanings, though, the saddest is when we use it as a synonym for ghetto. The last of these is the intended meaning in The Florida Project.

Looking for a feel-good movie. If so, set your GPS a thousand miles in the opposite direction of any place showing The Florida Project. That shouldn't be too hard, as this isn't the sort of film likely to be (ahem!) projected at a mall near you. Malls, after all, are repositories of material desire and The Florida Project is about how hopes die in the very shadow of glitz, fantasy, and conspicuous consumption. It was filmed in Kissimmee, Florida, which you probably recognize as the home of Disney World. Yet The Florida Project dares suggest that the American Dream is bullshit in Technicolor wrapping paper. It is the very essence of a "tough" film, but it's also one of the year's  best. 

Luridly colored hotels sit in plain sight just blocks from the Disney World entrance. To destination-bent motorists these bright purple, Pepto-Bismol pink, peppermint green, and sea-foam green edifices look a bit worn, but cheerful enough; that is, unless one mistakenly enters their parking lots. They are indeed "projects," cheap places where only those with an affinity for bedbugs and flirtations with seediness would ever wish to stay. They are often close to capacity for the simple reason that most units are SROs (single-room occupancies) for the down and out. Think the Midlands council housing featured in English director Mike Leigh's films swaddled in garish stucco.

Director Sean Baker invites us to imagine what it's like to live there, and his eyes into this world are largely those of children. Most of the film is set in complexes known respectively as the Future Land Inn and the Magic Castle Hotel, especially the latter. It's hard to escape the irony of names that echo nearby Disney World, but are eons removed on the socio-economic scale. Here children with little adult supervision live semi-feral existences—running amok through parking lots, abandoned housing tracts, dollar stores, cremee stands, greasy spoons, marshy fields, and tacky tourist shops. As the kids roam amidst the flat Florida landscape and kitschy capitalist trappings, Baker wordlessly drives home the point that a slum is a slum, no matter how bright its faux fronts.

Our main guide through Dante's Inferno is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her personal wolfpack: Dicky (Aiden Malik), Scotty (Christopher Rivera), and eventually her BFF Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Moonee is smart, incorrigible, and self-reliant, the latter two qualities a necessity for a child of a drug dealing, scam running, trick-turning, twenty-four-year-old single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley loves her daughter, but everything about her is a mess—including the scores of ugly tattoos chaotically inscribed upon her skin and a potty mouth that would make a sailor blush. She can't sustain her friendship with Ashley (Mela Murder), she can't stay straight, and she surely hasn't a clue of how to raise a kid; she has even less self-control than her six-year-old, who doesn't have much. We meet Moonee as she and her friends spit from a third-floor railing onto a car owned by Jancey's mother. That's certainly not a conventional path to friendship, but it works in a place where even children hustle by begging the cost of a single ice cream cone licked by all. Other activities include lining up for charity food handouts and breaking into abandoned houses.

Adult role models are scarce at the Magic Castle, a place whose weirdoes and damaged individuals seem like escapees from a Jim Jarmusch film. The closest thing to a functional adult is probably Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who manages the place and (sort of) looks out for the kids, whom he pretends to dislike. He actually has a soft interior—when he can access it. Bobby tries to keep his job by enforcing the rules, but is often too emotionally exhausted to give a damn one way or the other. Like other Magic Castle residents, he turns on a screw-it-all dime from kindness to rage. Consider, though, that Bobby is practically a long-range planner by local standards. Halley's idea of the future is to come up with—by hook or crook—the $35 she needs for her daily rent.  

The Florida Project features dazzling cinematography from Alexis Zabe, who makes ugliness look lush and vibrant. Young Brooklynn [sic] Prince dazzles as Moonee and is certainly a precocious talent to watch.  Vinaite's performance is so strong you'll have to remind yourself that she's not really a lowlife reprobate. Dafoe, however, is so good that it would be criminal were he not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Few do world-weary as well as he, but in this film he slathers his usual snark and sinister demeanor beneath layers of pathos. His is a nuanced and powerful performance.

The children of The Florida Project magnify its essential tragedy. Silver lining? Don't look for one; the film's climax is both chilling and indicting in ways that quietly make it a subversive film. The film will piss you off, but it should also make you fall to your knees in thanks that you had no problem coming up with the price of a theater ticket. It will also make you sad and force you to question star-spangled clichés of America the Bountiful. In this film, American exceptionalism lies ruined in a pit of purple stucco.

 Rob Weir


Dolores Huerta: A True American Heroine

DOLORES (2017)
Directed by Peter Bratt
PBS Distribution, 95 minutes, Not-rated

Remember Bill O'Reilly, the sexual predator from Fox? We briefly see his bile-spewing mug in the documentary Dolores, a look at the life and selfless career of Dolores Huerta (b. 1930). O'Reilly was among the smug Fox commentators aroused to righteous fury during a 2010 Arizona debate over adding ethnic studies to the state's school curriculum. One wonders why this is even a question in a state whose population is nearly one-third Hispanic, but Huerta was there to fight for it because she knew that Arizona was controlled by the GOP. When she sought to fire up local activists, she told them, "Look, the Republicans hate Latinos." That drove O'Reilly mad and he took to the Fox News airways: "Who is she? I've never even heard of this woman." Way to display your ignorance Billy. Arizona defeated the ethnic studies proposal and just look at how much Latinos love the GOP now.

My tone is sarcastic, something Huerta almost never is. In one way, though, O'Reilly was correct. If you had to pick the figure from the 20th century with the most awards, humanitarian achievements, and influence that is so little known, Dolores Huerta would be a contender. (For the record, any student who ever took a course from me would have heard her name, even if they can't recall why.) This raises a question. Why do so many recognize bloviators like O'Reilly, but so few know about Dolores Huerta? How about Carlos Santana? Bet you've heard of him. Santana thought it a sin that "Sister Dolores" (his term) is a relative unknown, so he put up some of his own dough to produce Peter Bratt's documentary about a remarkable woman who, at age 87, is still on the frontlines for social justice.

Call Huerta the Latina Mother Jones, except her résumé is even broader. Consider this  abbreviated bullet point summary of Ms. Huerta's accomplishments:

·      Working for social justice since 1955
·      1962: Co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA)
·      1955: Took command of the Delano strike and grape boycott, which
·      1966: Negotiated a settlement with Schenely Wine Company that was the first time an agricultural producer signed a union contract
·      1968: Worked with Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign
·      1970: Negotiate contracts when California growers capitulated to the grape boycott
·      1975: A leader in the campaign that culminated in the California  Agricultural Labor Relations Act*
·      1987: Cited by Ms Magazine as one of its women of the year
·      1980s/90s: Spearheaded campaigns against pesticide poisoning
·      1993: Inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame
·      1997: Cited as one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century
·      1998:  Won the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights
·      2002:  Established Dolores Huerta Foundation to train human rights activists
·      2012: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama
·      2017: Co-chaired the Women's March on Washington to protest inauguration of Donald Trump
·      Huerta coined the rallying cry Sí, su pudre whose English translation is "Yes, we can!" and was used by Barack Obama.

Dolores dares ask us: Why isn't Dolores Huerta a household name? Part of the answer is obvious: she's a brown-skinned Latina in a society dominated by white, male, Anglos. But that's not the whole story. Franklin Roosevelt once implored, "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made." This takes us back to O'Reilly. Huerta has spent her life speaking truth to power. Let's add some Frederick Douglass to FDR: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Huerta has tackled powers such as racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and economic privilege; that is, elites neither concerned with social or economic justice, nor inclined to shed tears for those living on life's margins. They are, however, inclined to moralizing.

The documentary takes as honest look at Huerta. She is saintly, but unlikely ever to be saint. She has been married and divorced twice, and has born eleven children to three different fathers—the last of whom was Richard Chavez, Cesar Chavez's brother. The documentary is unsparing regarding the cost of her activism. She was born in New Mexico, attended Stockton College, indulged her love of jazz and dance, and was on the path to a middle-class life until she chucked it all in 1955, when she joined the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. Huerta never looked back, though it meant voluntary poverty and absentee motherhood. Her children speak candidly of her absence, their hurt, and (often) their anger; Huerta views this as akin to collateral damage in a time of war. Her personal life, however, made her easy prey for moralists wishing to divert attention from their own activities.

The film is also unsparing in looking at organized labor's internal struggles, union sexism, and the lengths to which organized power would go to try to thwart Huerta and the UFWA. Testimonials appear throughout; among them those of Angela Davis, Hillary Clinton, and Gloria Steinem. Steinem utters the movie's most poignant line when discussing Huerta's work with Bobby Kennedy and his assassination: "I had seen the past die, but never before had I witnessed the death of the future." Yowser! Imagine: If RFK had lived, no Nixon, no Ford, no Carter, and probably no Reagan or Bush. Not coincidentally, Huerta was singled out for an unprovoked near-fatal beating while protesting against G. H. W. Bush in 1988. Imagine also a different post-1993 future. Cesar Chavez got most of the UFWA glory, but Huerta was (at least) his equal. When Chavez died, most farmworkers assumed Huerta would assume the union presidency; it went to a man (and the UFWA has never been the same). For Huerta, it awakened a dormant feminist consciousness and made her revaluate her life. Draw a straight line from 1993 to the Huerta Foundation.   

Another amazing aspect of the film is Huerta's demeanor—measured, calm, and pacific no matter what she faced. Nor does she ever apologize for the path she followed. Dolores Huerta is the very embodiment of a person all in for her causes. Numerous interviewers have played the role of Satan in the Wilderness and have tempted Huerta with questions of what she would do if she were given a large sum of money to spend on herself. The answer is always the same: give it to the cause. Thus the moralists rant and pretend they don't know her, or rail that she's a poor role model who abandoned her children. Problem: Every one of her now-adult children deeply loves and admires Dolores. Most of them now work with her foundation. If you don't know about this remarkable woman, be sure to see this documentary. After all, who wants to be as big an ignoramus as Bill O'Reilly?

Rob Weir

* Contrary to popular belief, many workers were excluded from the 1935 Labor Relations Act and agricultural workers were specifically excluded from it. To date, California remains the only state to extend labor protection to agricultural workers.


Nick Hornby's Funny Girl a Middling Effort

By Nick Hornby
Riverhead, 453 pages
★★ ½

No, this not a spinoff of an old Streisand movie, though it is about a Barbara. Barbara Parker is a beautiful young woman who'd much rather be known for being silly than for being statuesque. The story opens in 1964, when Parker wins the Miss Blackpool beauty pageant and promptly forfeits her crown when she realizes that her duties would keep her in that seaside domain for another year. Hey—if you've ever been to Blackpool, you'd understand! Instead, Parker trudges off to London in the hope of following in the footsteps of her idol: Lucille Ball.

After a series of misadventures, the undereducated, but plucky and blunt Parker lands a role in a TV rom-com titled Wedded Bliss? (The question mark factors into the plot.) Against all odds, it turns into a massive hit. Hornby takes us through the decades to the present when Parker—known by her stage name Sophie Straw—is an aged icon whose co-stars have been largely forgotten.

Parker/Straw is the central character, but the more intriguing duo is the show's writers: Bill Gardiner and Tony Holmes. After World War II they were caught in flagrante delicto in a men's lavatory, but recovered to begin writing frothy TV fare in the late 1950s. Wedded Bliss? transforms them as well, but will success file the barbs from their rapier wit? We watch Bill embrace his sexuality while Tony follows a more conventional bourgeois path. Will this take down their partnership when their hit show declines and ends—as all TV shows inevitably do?

I liked how Hornby presented the early 1960s British entertainment scene, a time in which vaudeville and music halls were not quite dead and BBC TV was stolid, serious, and dull. As the expression goes, then the Sixties happened. Shows like Wedded Bliss?—seen by their detractors as gutter trash and their defenders as groundbreaking—soon seemed like pastoral innocence compared to what loomed on the  horizon. Till Death Do Us Part—whose American copycat was All in the Family—obliterated the decorum bar and writers took full advantage to offer fare such as: The Benny Hill Show, Not Only… But Also, and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Maybe that's my problem with this novel. Barbara/Sophie has her moments and I enjoyed her working-class frankness, but funny she isn't. She's mostly an accidental celebrity and about as interesting as most such figures aren't. Put more directly, she's no Lucille Ball. The book is overlong and the post-mid-60s parts are labored and unconvincing. I found Funny Girl a diversion for the seven-hour flight during which I read it, but it's truly a middling effort from Hornby. It's fine as flight fodder, but if you're on the ground, you should find your way to the library for better Horny offerings such as High Fidelity, About a Boy, or A Long Way Down.  

 Rob Weir