VIFF 2017 Capsule Reviews #4

Children, especially young children, are generally not very good at anchoring a film. Either they are encouraged to mug for the camera (think Macauley Culkin in Home Alone), or they attempt serious line readings but do not know how to find the character within the lines. They have no gravitas. Well, to paraphrase a Kevin Kline character, The Florida Project’s star-in-the-making Brooklynn Prince has gravitas out the wazoo, and when she needs it, it sends the film soaring to tremendous heights.

The Florida Project takes place at some off-off-OFF Disney motels, where several families on welfare and other government programs try to survive the reality of their lives. Some occasionally get a ticket to a potentially better future and disappear… others work nearby to make ends meet, and still others bend the law as much as they can in order to provide for their kids. They all interact in simple ways while the manager, played with understated strength by Willem Dafoe, tries to keep the building from falling down. The central story follows a young girl roaming freely through the neighbourhood with a few motel friends, doing whatever they please, while her mother juggles numerous problems. The children “say the darndest things,” but while this might seem like the mugging I mentioned earlier, it evolves and real characters break through. By the end, The Florida Project makes no thematic statements about life; it does not pass judgment on its characters, or the government; everyone is simply treated with dignity and allowed to make their choices, and when they all fall on little Brooklynn Prince’s shoulders, the film explodes. This is a must-see film.

Much less impactful is a found-footage film called Dragonfly Eyes by Bing Xu. The idea is clever: sift through hours upon hours of surveillance camera footage, and craft a narrative out of it. The concept Xu comes up with actually works with the footage very well. A young woman meets a man at a factory, but then disappears, and may or may not turn up months later after plastic surgery has remade her image into an internet pop star. The idea allows for the different scenes to have different people but links them together as if they are the same people over and over… it is an intriguing concept, and to Xu’s credit, I did get a bit invested in Ke Fan’s efforts to track the woman down.

Where Dragonfly Eyes crashes and burns (a fitting term, as you’ll see) is in its many interludes. The various periods of Ke Fan’s journey through the footage are interrupted by loops of car crashes, plane crashes, train crashes, basically scene after scene of people dying in real life. Xu’s use of these scenes does not connect to the main narrative in any real way, other than to provide a sense of dread that isn’t even necessary. The use of these scenes, when they offer nothing of value, feels very inappropriate to me. But most of all, it is just lazy. Many of the crashes are famous enough that I had already seen them on YouTube, meaning not only did Xu choose to incorporate footage of people dying, but he failed to even bother to find new material; skimming the internet for such tragedies for no reason other than shock and expanding your film’s run time is not something I can get behind.

When beloved filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami passed away, he left one final film – an experiment in seeing, hearing and thinking like an artist – for us to treasure. 24 Frames is exactly what the title suggests: 24 still images, almost all ones that Kiarostami took over the years, but they are made into vignettes. For just over four minutes each, the image comes alive, with little birds and other animals moving in and out of the frame. Now, none of these have what I would call Big Drama. Many of them consist of birds messing around in some snow to look for food – the drama of the frame being that a new bird swoops in and chases the others off.

The point of 24 Frames isn’t to see what happens, but to make you, the viewer, think about what MIGHT happen. It makes you think as an artist: which moment within the four minutes catches your eye? Why? What is it about that moment that intrigues you? Further, it makes you wonder which part was Kiarostami’s original image, as the movement mostly has begun by the time the frame begins. So you think with his eyes, you think with your own… it’s a cinephile’s dream. My only complaint is that there is an inordinate amount of repetition between frames; Kiarostami apparently really loved birds in the snow, for instance, which is fine, but when 5 of 24 frames consist of those same birds rummaging around in the snow again, it feels odd. Why these again? What is there that is new this time, compared to the last? But really, this film was a joy despite that.