THEATER REVIEW: Fun Home
Boston Opera House, Boston, October 29, 2017
This car ride,
This is where it has to happen!
There must be some other chances.
There’s a moment I’m forgetting
Where you tell me you see me.
Say something, talk to me!
Say something, anything!
The last weekend she ever sees him, Alison Bechdel begs her father to talk to her. Really talk to her. This mundane car ride comes weeks after she comes out to him, hours after she learns he sleeps around with young men—and days before he steps in front of a truck. It’s Alison’s first and only chance to address what used to be their shared secret. He makes a small gesture, suggests a local gay bar, but she reminds him she’s too young to go. Nothing is really said.
This vignette, “Telephone Wire,” is one of the more powerful moments of the new musical Fun Home, when the characters try to express their unformed, tentative, scary emotions. Alison’s lyrics above might be her adult self looking back, or her college-age self trying to work it out in the moment. Lisa Kron’s lyrics, aided by Jeanine Tesori’s conversational melodies, let Alison and her dad embrace their messy uncertainty.
We hear the same thing in “Ring of Keys,” where ten-year-old Alison spots an old-school butch woman in a diner and realizes she identifies with her. She’s too young to fully make sense of her queerness, but she know that something about this woman makes sense: “I want to…” “You’re so…” “I feel…”
Fun Home gives Alison emotional and musical space to explore, as she comes to accept herself as a lesbian and finds a way to transform her father’s closeted life and tragic death into art. He instructs her to draw a map for a school project; when she grows up, she illustrates her father as the focus of her graphic novel. In the national tour of Fun Home that just visited Boston, the whole cast is excellent (including Robert Petkoff as the fastidious, troubled Bruce Bechdel and Susan Moniz as his downtrodden wife, Helen). But the three Alisons (Carly Gold, Abby Corrigan, and Kate Shindle) anchor the production. Through their performances, we see a clear portrait of the artist as a young women, trying hard to understand her father and to portray him openly, honestly, in all his cruelty and love and self-destructiveness.
Like young Alison in Fun Home, we see a grown-up world through the eyes of six-year-old Moonie in Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project. Moonee and her mom Halley are extended residents at the Magic Kingdom Motel, where many down-on-their-luck families make their home, just down the street from the tourists flooding Disney World. Moonee is scrappy and precocious, unembarrassed and often rude—and blessed with her own six-year-old understanding of her motel world, where the fluorescent purple of the motel walls and the abandoned row of nearby houses signal adventure and possibility.
We wonder what she understands of this life, and her mother living dollar to dollar–a life that many adults would look down upon, but one that feels natural and exciting to our heroine. We only see a few months, maybe, pass by, but Baker allows Moonee small insights into her own circumstances. When Moonee complains about cheese pizza for dinner, her mom reminds her pepperoni costs extra.
Though Baker previously directed five movies, including 2015’s wildly entertaining Tangerine, this movie feels like his mainstream debut. Everything has a professional sheen that his last movie, shot exclusively on iPhones, didn’t bother with, plus star casting in Willem Dafoe, who is perfect as the weathered but kind-hearted motel manager. Dafoe comes to represent a paternal figure to Moonee and the other motel kids scrambling about; he relates to Moonee on her level, and is protective and sympathetic to his residents even though he knows he can’t do much to alleviate their hardship.
It’s a beautiful movie, not the least because it’s shot with Moonie’s perspective in mind. Her piece of the world is awash with color and vibrant characters, with secret natural hideaways hidden among the traffic along the main strip leading to Disney. The Florida Project’s title sounds like a work in progress, a non-naive suggestion that there’s hope for all of its characters. To Moonie, it’s possible to find the magic wherever you are, with a little grit and imagination.