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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Fantasy to reality on seamy side of American Dream

Gerald Schmitz


Thor: Ragnarok
The Florida Project

Given the state of the world and the divided states of America, I can understand the appeal of escapist entertainment, including of the superhero blockbuster kind when well-done as is the case with Thor: Ragnarok on screens everywhere. That this latest $180-million Marvel Studios feature works is largely thanks to New Zealand director Taika Waititi, previously known for quirky independents What We Do in the Shadows and last year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This is imaginative comic book sci-fi laced with offbeat humour. There’s Chris Hemsworth as Thor with the magic hammer, of course, joined by fine actors: Cate Blanchett as Hela, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, Jeff Goldblum as Grandmaster; Idris Elba as Heimdall; Anthony Hopkins as Odin; Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange . . . even Waititi himself as the voice of a campy monster called Korg. Unseriously, what’s not to like?

Much less enjoyable but closer to home is George Clooney’s Suburbicon, an odd piece of black comedy that slices into rather than tickles the American funnybone. Pushing the satire into savagery — as developed by Clooney and Grant Heslov from an old Coen brothers script unproduced for three decades — only partly explains why it rates a sickly 26 per cent favourable score on compared to Thor’s robust 93 per cent.

Suburbicon is the name given an ideal whitebread community circa 1950s in which the perfectly manicured façade masks behaviour that grows progressively uglier. The Lodge household consists of dad Gardner (Matt Damon), a finance executive, young son Nicky (Noah Jupe), wife and mom Rose (Julianne Moore) and her twin sister Margaret (Moore again). Rose is in a wheelchair as a result of an accident. Their neighbourhood is disrupted when an African-American family — dad, mom and little boy — moves in next door and white disapproval turns from consternation to rage and ultimately violence.

While this is going on, a sinister melodrama unfolds inside the Lodge household. A couple of thugs stage a home invasion which results in Rose’s demise. Gardner’s and Margaret’s plans to collect on the insurance policy get derailed by a nosey investigator (Oscar Isaac) who smells a rat, and there’s the problem of what to do with the kid, Nicky, when he finds out. Murder and mayhem ensue inside and outside. Fortunately Nicky is saved twice, first by the timely intervention of a beloved bachelor, uncle Mitch, and again when faced with a fatherly choice of coverup complicity or death, by the blackest of ironies.

As the racist outrages mount along with the body count, I suppose there’s a glimmer of sunshine in that the African-American family survives and the two boys go off to play as neighbours and friends. Still, Suburbicon’s critique falls into caricature, becoming an absurdist parody of the Middle American dream turned nightmare.

This is a good time to note that the Thor franchise is backed by Walt Disney Pictures, and there’s an eerie echo of the model American community of “Celebration” that the Disney empire established in the 1990s close to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the world’s most successful theme park, that Walt originally called the “Florida Project.”

Although it takes place within walking distance of the Magic Kingdom, there’s nothing funny about the ending of director/co-writer/editor Sean Baker’s remarkable The Florida Project as two little girls run toward the iconic Disney castle. One of them, and the centre of attention, is six-year-old Moonee (an amazing performance by Brooklynn Prince), who lives hand-to-mouth with her heavily tattooed, chain-smoking single mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in one of the string of cheap motels surrounded by fast-food joints, gun shops and tourist traps. Home is a low-rent garishly decked-out suburban wasteland of the soul for an underclass struggling to make ends meet.

Moonee’s room is in the purple-painted Magic Castle motel, no irony intended. It’s summer break and the residents’ kids watch TV and run wild for lack of anything better. The precocious Moonee hangs out with a Latino boy, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), whose mom at least has a steady restaurant job, and another girl, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives is the nearby Futureland motel.

Hyperactivity keeps getting them in trouble, which is more forgivable in the eyes of the kindly motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, superb), than the pattern of irresponsibility exhibited by Halley as she scrounges to make the weekly rent money. He fixes things and stays the centre of protective calm as all around try his patience. What he cannot fix is Halley’s downward spiral as she resorts to theft and turning tricks, bringing the authorities on the scene. One is left to ponder what kind of broken childhood awaits Moonee when the Disneyfied children’s dreamworld next door might as well be on another planet.

Baker’s previous film, the award-winning Tangerine, was famously shot on an iPhone. He has a way of getting astonishing work from non-professional actors. The Florida Project deserves more plaudits and a broader audience for its unsparing look at the seamy underside of the American dream.