I cued up director Sean Dunne’s Florida Man, released earlier this month, nervous that it would be a condescending point-and-laugh-fest. Its title, after all, is inspired by Twitter accounts and memes preoccupied with just how crazy, violent, stupid and degenerate Floridians are.
An hourlong documentary featuring the same sort of stories could have been just as mean and shallow and it could have been, with its interviews of a couple dozen old, violent, alcoholic, dead-end Floridian men, regaling the camera with their tales of debauchery and hopelessness.You know these guys — they’re the ones selling palm-frond crucifixes by the roadside, barely staying upright at the bar, swearing at an imaginary enemy in the parking lot.
But there’s a good chance you don’t really know them, because you, like me, are probably too wrapped up in your own challenges and messes and worries to bother. You might agree with one homeless wanderer’s self-assessment: “I’m just one guy. I’m nobody.”
But Dunne takes the time to sit down and talk to them. He refuses to judge them, giving them space to speak, think and sometimes simply to exist. Rather than denigrating these men, treating them as losers and problems, Florida Man takes them on their own terms and shows them to be as human as anyone. They have their own values, their own desires. And while many of them have been ground down by a mix of bad choices and forces outside of their control, there’s less regret and bitterness than you’d expect.
The film is elevated even further by how beautifully it’s shot. If you’ve ever driven south on Nebraska after 10pm, you’ll recognize the raw neon landscape of convenience stores and strip-mall bars, but here they’re given a kind of mythic bleakness. But the film contrasts that with both its subjects insistence on Florida’s beauty and plenty of actual footage of it – beaches, sunrises, palm trees.
The gap between that beauty and the reality of these men’s lives is one of the central tensions of Florida Man. Many of them say they came for the beaches and a few seem to have managed to grab a slice of paradise — a trailer home on the sand, or at least a bike that can carry their surfboard.
But these are strugglers who think like retirees, alcoholics who think they’re living it up, violent thugs who share tales of barroom brutality with impish glee. They’re returning car batteries to Wal-Mart so they can make it to the next paycheck. Their joys are destroying them.
You can see that complexity in the mens’ faces, which Dunne lets us explore with long, contemplative close-ups. These video portraits are as revealing as anything by Diane Arbus or Chuck Close, tracing not just the deep grooves life has worn in these Floridian faces, but the range of defensive smirks, satisfied smiles and weary frowns that they wear.
The film touches, through the mens’ stories, on the larger problems that plague Florida — corrupt small-town justice, pill mills, racism and poverty. But this is a film about people, not systems. And while some of those people look at first glance like tragicomic stereotypes, Florida Man elevates their experiences.
Late in the film, a younger homeless kid clutches a Bible and asks: “Why the hell are we here? This is a test, that’s all this is. There’s gotta be something else.” These men – not to mention the women around them, who unfortunately don’t get to tell their stories here — deserve more real-world dignity than a single film can give them. But Florida Man is a start — a beautiful piece of work that gives humanity back to people who have too often had it taken away.
You can view Florida Man in its entirety on Vimeo.