Two recent and very different movies share a common theme of being set in disorienting and threatening places. The trash-heap Los Angeles of Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, permanently enveloped in rust-colored smog, is an appropriate setting for a movie in which people are as disposable as fast-food wrappers. Sean Baker's The Florida Project, set in cheap motels around the perimeter of Disney World, depicts the lives of children growing up wild in a place where both buildings and souls rot in the damp tropical heat.
Taking place thirty years after the original movie, Blade Runner 2049 represents the fetid perfection of the society envisioned by malevolent tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). In the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, the blighted planet survives through synthetic farming supervised by the Wallace Corporation, which also manufactures replicants that are far more docile than in the days of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
The lead character of Blade Runner 2049 is K (Ryan Gosling), a new-model replicant. Like Deckard before him, K is a "blade runner"—i.e. a policeman who specializes in "retiring" (i.e. destroying) troublesome replicants. The Wallace Corporation provides all his needs, including a holographic lover named Joi (Ana de Armas).
After dispatching one old-model replicant, K finds a box on his land, containing human remains. He takes the box to his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). The forensic results are alarming: the remains are those of Rachael, the female replicant played by Sean Young in the earlier movie, who died giving birth. Because all replicants are supposed to be sterile, this evidence of replicant fertility would pour gasoline on the long-smoldering replicant rebellion. Joshi has the remains destroyed, and orders K to find and retire the child.
K's search leads him to Wallace; to Wallace's evil replicant second-in-command, the inaptly named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks); and eventually to Deckard, who is hiding out in the crumbling casinos of the former Las Vegas. But one piece of evidence is especially significant to K: the date of Rachael's death, which corresponds exactly to the numbers carved on the bottom of a wooden toy horse K remembers from his childhood. Taking his investigation to an orphanage in what is left of San Diego, he finds the toy horse exactly where he remembers hiding it. Replicants have only implanted memories, but this obviously is a real one. K dares to think: could he be the child?
Technically, Blade Runner 2049 is as amazing as anything ever put on the screen. The cinematography by Roger Deakins, the editing by Joe Walker and the production design by Dennis Gassner mesh perfectly to create a Stygian nightmare of a world, aided by a battalion of special-effects masters. (Fans of The Jetsons would never guess that flying cars could be such a dispiriting sight.)
However, it is Villeneuve who ensures that Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, creating a mood that combines complete disorientation with impending doom. It is not surprising that the director of Incendies and Arrival could conjure such a dire milieu, but here Villeneuve exceeds not only himself, but just about every film of dystopia ever made. K, like every other replicant, is an alien in a world that created him to be a disposable slave, nothing more. Even the replicant underground promises only Pyrrhic victories. This makes K's hopes for something more—that he might actually be a real human being—bitterly poignant. As for Deckard, thirty years in exile, he receives only the slightest sliver of hope in a world that, at the end of Blade Runner 2049, is exactly the same as it was at the beginning.
Hope is either scanty or abundant in The Florida Project, depending through whose eyes you view the movie.
For six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), the Magic Castle Motel where she lives is full of brightly colored promise. It is Moonee's vision that dominates the film's trailers, making the film look like a charming paean to children growing up in a neo-Tom Sawyer environment. But the adults in The Florida Project are buried under all the tinny Mickey Mouse souvenirs in an endless stretch of cheesy strip malls. The closest anyone in The Florida Project gets to the Magic Kingdom is the street sign for Seven Dwarfs Way. The kids don't mind; they're too busy exploring abandoned housing projects or bumming free ice cream from local vendors. But the adults must endure having failure thrown in their faces every day of their lives.
We first meet Moonee and her friends spitting on a neighbor's car from a second-floor balcony. They are trying to see who can spit the farthest. A couple of the kids get in trouble, but for Moonee the experience is totally positive: she gets to meet Jancey (Valeria Cotto), the car owner's granddaughter, who quickly becomes her best friend.
You get the idea that Moonee and her friends don't get a lot of adult supervision. When you see Mooney's mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), you might prefer that Moonee get no adult supervision at all. Halley clearly loves her daughter, but she is incapable even of taking care of herself, and her moral compass is beyond wobbly. Halley's idea of gainful employment is taking Moonee to shoplift perfume at the local discount store, then trying to sell it in parking lots. When that doesn't pay the bills, Halley brings gentlemen callers to her room, and Moonee has to spend the night in the bathroom.
The one person who keeps Halley and Moonee's world from falling apart is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), manager of the Magic Castle. Bobby is the resident adult on the premises, making sure that church charity trucks show up with free bread, making sure that guests move out of their rooms one day each month so they don't establish residency, with all its legal inconveniences. Even as he tries and fails to establish a connection with his grown son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones), Bobby serves as a surrogate father to every child at the Magic Castle, at one point chasing away a pedophile the real parents are too preoccupied to notice.
Sean Baker has staked out for himself roughly the same place in cinema that Nelson Algren and Hubert Selby Jr. staked out in literature. Baker's last film—Tangerine, a gritty tale of transsexual hookers in Los Angeles—is famous for being shot entirely on an iPhone. But it also demonstrated Baker's ability to portray the humanity and complexity in people most of us would be tempted to run away from. He goes even further in The Florida Project: Moonee is a living rebuke to all of us who would turn our backs on her mother, or her neighborhood.
The performances in The Florida Project are superb. Dafoe has deservedly received some of the best reviews of his career, and Vinaite makes us grieve for Halley's plight even as we are disgusted by her actions. Prince gives unequivocally one of the greatest performances ever by a child actor, particularly at the end when her little world comes tumbling down around her. I wept at her final scenes, the first time in years I have cried at the movies. The Florida Project is not a film I would recommend to everyone, but its power is undeniable.