Reel Dad: The Florida Project reveals how lives matter

We see people walk down streets without knowing their lives. We watch them shop and eat, chat and wander without realizing what challenges they confront, what fears they face. And we assume their lives are in order because we live ordered lives.

The stunning new film The Florida Project — a popular entry in this year’s New York Film Festival — reminds us that beneath the surface of a society that pretends to take care of others lives a population that society overlooks. These people hang on, one day at a time, one motel room by the week, one desperate effort after another to make money, until they run out of ways to avoid the inevitable conclusion when people overlook people whose pain is inconvenient. And when a government’s intention to invest in lives gets lost in the sea of political agendas.

Without exaggerating conditions, fabricating concerns or stretching truth, The Florida Project reveals the day to day struggles of people who live in the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando without experiencing much magic. A young mother lives in a rundown motel with her precocious daughter. While the mother searches for any way to make money, the daughter creates her own adventures with other children of other job searching parents sharing similar conditions. Together these kids command the world within their reach. They taunt residents, play games, look for treasure, hunt for free food and ignore the realities of life that could interrupt the fun. What they cannot have they imagine, what they miss they ignore. Keeping them in check, like a lifeguard at a crowded beach, is a kind-hearted motel manager who serves as protector, conscience and navigator, keeping these children grounded in an existence with little connection to reality.

If all this sounds too heavy for an evening at the movies, don’t worry, the film entertains as it enlightens, inspires as it informs. Child actress Brooklynn Prince offers a delightful rendition of a young girl in command of the moment. She spontaneously reveals the hope that children bring to every situation, the sense of fun that helps kids endure, and the giggles that can soothe the soul. Every moment in this portrayal feels fresh as if Prince lives this girl’s life not simply reads the film’s dialogue. As her mother, Bria Vinaite reveals the hopelessness that some may feel when they can’t find the strength to manage and, as the motel man trying to keep peace in his immediate community, Willem Dafoe has his strongest role in years, a character that demands a layer of warmth this actor doesn't always get the chance to project.

The power of the film, no surprise, rests on director Sean Baker, because film is a director’s medium and Baker creatively imagines every possible visual to advance his narrative. This director who shot the film Tangerine on an iPhone may get to use a steadier camera this time but still creates the sensation that we are observing lives we never receive invitations to see. The Florida Project reminds us that if we only look for what is comfortable we will miss a lot of the story.

Film Nutritional Value: The Florida Project

  • Content: High. This meaningful look at the challenges of people overlooked by society reminds us of the burden we share to support those who need.

  • Entertainment: High. Despite the somber backdrop for the narrative, the film is entertaining and touching thanks to the authenticity of its characters.

  • Message: High. While the film carefully avoids getting preachy, its overall impact clearly expresses the hope that children experience at the start of each day.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to share a film such a meaningful film with your family and friends is welcome.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers an insightful look at how people cope with the hopes and disappointments of life.

The Florida Project is Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material. It runs 1 hour, 55 minutes. 5 Popcorn buckets.

Beasts of the Southern Wild reveals worlds we do not see

By Mark Schumann

Father of Three

A child naturally brings an instinct to survive any challenge the world may deliver. His or her ability to dare and deny can deliver the courage to stand up to anything or anyone. And the lessons someone may learn from these experiences can fuel a lifetime of dreams.

Much like the new film The Florida Project, the 2012 offering Beasts of the Southern Wild explores how a child’s resilience can be tested by uncontrollable events. Using life on a Southern delta as a location, and events surrounding a major storm as a catalyst, the movie examines how one child learns to save herself, protect her father and nurture people she cares for. Through her adventures and the relationships she holds dear, we learn how values are formed from the inside; from her challenges and the bravery she shows, we experience how strong values persevere.

Hushpuppy is a young girl who knows how to maneuver around her immediate world. She is comfortable in her room, surrounded by her memories, close to her father and connected to others she cares for. In dwellings that lack most everything we consider essential, from running water to electricity, these people disappear from mainstream society. The “bathtub” – as they call their part of the world – is, simply, home.

When a major storm approaches, in a sequence reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hushpuppy’s instinct for survival is put to the ultimate test. How will this girl, aged well beyond her years, react when public officials demand evacuation? How will she protect her ill father who is her only family and caregiver? How will she take command of her destiny? And what can we learn from her bravery?

Without relying on a traditional narrative to tell its story, Beasts is not as much about what it is than what it suggests. This is not a conventional film that uses standard dialogue to develop accessible characters. Instead, writer and director Ben Zeitlin uses compelling visuals to establish a sense of place and fragments of conversation to illustrate relationships. While the film is clearly rooted in the South, it could be told in any place where people are forgotten by the rest of society. And Hushpuppy’s bravery is a demonstration, to any child, of the power of belief in self, home and future.

As six-year-old Hushpuppy, child actor Quvenzhané Wallis simply astonishes. Rarely do we see such young performers so naturally capture a character’s essence. But Wallis never lets us see that she is acting; she simply lives within the little girl’s soul. Her screen presence is so magnetic that she instantly draws us into world. And, when the film reaches an abstract climax, Wallis’ authenticity grounds us in believing that anything can happen in this little girl’s world.

Much like The Florida Project, Beasts is a film for families to share and discuss. While the specifics of Hushpuppy’s world may seem many miles away, much like a rundown motel in Orlando, the lessons of her ordeal are immediate and real. And they give us parents a lot to talk about with our kids.

Film Nutritional Value: Beasts of the Southern Wild

  • Content: High. This examination of a child’s courage is a meaningful journey for everyone.

  • Entertainment: High. Even without a conventional narrative, the film helps us see into the soul of a special child and her immediate world.

  • Message: High. While the film makes us think, it also helps us see what difference real bravery can make.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to get to know an unfamiliar part of the world, and look into a special person’s mind and heart, is relevant.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children will have a lot to talk about as you remember your visit to Hushpuppy’s world.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language and brief sensuality. The film runs 91 minutes.  4-1/2 Popcorn buckets.