The Florida Project

Studio: A24
Directed by Sean Baker

Oct 06, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Sean Baker hit the (sort of) mainstream with his 2015 film Tangerine, a loving portrait of transgender prostitutes, immigrant cab drivers and other marginalized individuals inhabiting the outskirts of Los Angeles. With The Florida Project, Baker shifts his focus to the east coast - specifically the strip-mall suburbs of Orlando - to shine a light on another community of the underserved and ignored, in what may be the best film of 2017.

The Florida Project takes place almost entirely at the Magic Castle, a rundown motel that functions as low-income housing for its tenants, with entire families crammed into single rooms. It doesn’t live up to its name in the eyes of the adults that pay the weekly rent, but it does for six year-old Moonee and her friends, who spend their days running gleefully roughshod over the tenants, staff and tourists that cross their paths. Moonee is the daughter of Halley, a heavily tattooed whirlwind of a human being who’s barely more than a child herself. When she’s not using Moonee as a lovable front to hawk cheap wholesale perfume to Disney tourists, she’s smoking weed by the pool and bitching to hotel manager Bobby, played by a delightfully exhausted Willem Dafoe. One could make an argument for any of these three people being film’s main character, although they have equal screen time and none of them go through any revelatory character development. But Baker - who directed, produced, edited and co-wrote the film - has little interest in traditional narrative structure. Although not shot on an iPhone as Tangerine famously was, The Florida Project employs a similar cinema vérité style, the camera bobbing behind and nearby the characters, seeming to simply stumble upon them going about their business. Most scenes last less than a minute, providing the audience with quick glimpses into the day-to-day routines of people you wouldn’t look twice at if you passed them on the street. It’s a hangout movie, in the best sense of the word.

Of course, hangout movies are only as good as the company they provide. The residents of Magic Castle - like the spitfire prostitutes at the center of Tangerine - are loud, uncouth and self-destructive, but also completely lovable. The breakout star of the film will no doubt be Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as Moonee, who gives a performance that makes one wish they still handed out specialty juvenile awards at the Oscars. Moonee and her friends Jancey and Scooty are, to put it mildly, terrors. Their daily unsupervised activities range from annoying to destructive to outright illegal, but it won’t take long before the desire to join them overtakes the urge to stop them. Much of their charm stems from the fact that Baker views their antics as a worthwhile subject all their own, as opposed to a necessary means to drive the plot, which is the purpose of children in most conventional films. By allowing Prince and the other child actors to be their loose-limbed, nonsensically rambling selves, he perfectly captures the excitement and fun that kids can generate by simply being kids, even if their only available playground is a dirty, sweltering motel parking lot. Despite it’s realism, Baker doesn’t fully abandon his sense of artistry. The flat, wide shots of the kids trooping down the strip, dwarfed by kitschy, pastel-colored tourists traps, border on the surreal and create an excellent juxtaposition with the world-class theme park that is only miles away and completely out of their reach.

Baker’s facility with child actors extends to adults as well. Bria Vinaite - whom Baker discovered on Instagram - makes Halley a delightful underdog while also being a total disaster as an adult and a mother. And Willem Dafoe gives a career-best performance as Bobby, a working-stiff motel manager who acts as cop, collection agent, maintenance man and father figure to the various Magic Castle inhabitants. Just as Bobby gives the motel a sense of warmth and stability, so too does Dafoe with the film itself. These characters are the detritus left behind by a 21st-century America with increasingly less room for the poor and undereducated. The Florida Project never looks at them with pity, only understanding and sympathy. It laughs and commiserates with them without ever lying about the severity of their daily circumstances. It’s one of the starkest examples of pure humanism in cinema that you’re ever likely to see. 

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Author rating: 9.5/10

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