The other day, by sheer coincidence, we found ourselves watching two films about mothers and daughters back to back. Though radically different in tone, both films explored the same theme—that environment plays an important part in personal development. Everyone knows that already, but it was interesting to see how the stories played themselves out, one set in a run-down residential motel in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other amid the elegant and restful modernist architecture of Columbus, Indiana.
The Florida Project follows a few days in the life of Moonie, a six-year-old girl who lives with her mother, Halley, in a single room of a purple, three-story motel called the Magic Castle. Moonie is hyperactive, and spends most of her time with her friends shouting, mooching from passing tourists, setting fire to buildings, and engaging in other random acts of innocent mischief. It's difficult to watch; she isn't a likable little girl, though it's easy to see she's been dealt a bad hand and is trying hard, day after day, to turn her childhood into something fun.
Moonie's mother, a professional dancer, black-market perfume hawker, and sometime prostitute, is, if anything, less mature than her daughter. Her vocabulary is invariably crude, her attention span is minimal, her vision of the future non-existent. She scrambles to get by, but parenting isn't high on her list of priorities.
In the midst of all the ugliness and chaos, the motel manager (played by Willem Dafoe), provides an element of rationality as he tries to maintain order, offering some level of attention and support for Moonie and her friends while resisting the ever-present temptation to make his life easier by kicking Halley and her daughter out of the motel permanently.
The film has its quiet moments—for example, when Moonie and her friend Jancey wander out into a field to look at some cows—but it would be a mistake to arrive at the theater expecting anything playful or uplifting. It's a sad, annoying, and agonizing tale—though it does stick with you.
Nothing could be farther removed from the frantic tone of The Florida Project than the rich tones and measured pace of Columbus. The film is set in Columbus, Indiana, a small town famous for its modernist architecture. In the first few minutes, a famous Korean architectural historian collapses on the pavement while examining a building with a woman we later learn was a prize student and is now his assistant. Soon afterward his son, Jin, arrives from Seoul where he's employed translating books from English into Korean. Father and son have never been close.
Meanwhile, Columbus native Casey prepares to give a tour of the city's famous buildings. She's bright, somewhat wistful, not sure what she wants to do with her life, but ostensibly happy to remain in her home town, living with her mother and pondering a MLS while her friends head off to Palo Alto and other more stimulating places.
Casey and Jin meet by accident. He's bored and eager to return to Korea, though he's tied to the ancient tradition holding that if a father dies alone, his unhappy ghost will roam the earth. He takes little interest in modern architecture, but he and Casey start spending time together, visiting buildings and getting to know one another.
Columbus is one of those films that grab you on the first scene—luminescent, perfectly framed, and wonderful to look at, although nothing is happening. The main characters are similarly engaging. Conversation is unhurried and thoughtful. Jin, though bored and jaded, remains courteous. He listens. And Casey has a youthful radiance that buoys her melancholy and indecision. She feels the beauty and power of the local buildings, an experience that has been denied to Jin by his father's career. "You grow up around something, and it means nothing to you," he says. Many citizens of Columbus feel the same.
And what about Casey's mother? She, too, has a role to play in the drama--though I don't want to give too much of the plot away--as does Jin's father's assistant and Casey's nerdy friend at the library where she works. It's a lovely ensemble and a lovely film, and first-time director Kogonada has infused it with an intelligence that brings Flaubert's remark to mind: "An author in his book [or film director in his film] must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”