The Florida Project, 2017.
Directed by Sean Baker.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Caleb Landry Jones, and Macon Blair.
Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.
There is a crucial, carefully laid out dynamic in The Florida Project that lingers in the mind over the course of the film’s hot Sunshine State Summer: Disney World, often given the moniker of the happiest place on Earth, is within walking distance from the run-down, tacky knock-off of the Magic Kingdom dubbed the Magic Castle. It’s a motel populated with the lower class, impoverished citizens seemingly trying to live day by day at the resort, complete with surrounding restaurants, gift shops, and more all in the vein of the world’s most celebrated theme park (although no rides or anything). Many of the inhabitants appear to be criminals, alcoholics, and other sorts of rotten apples, but among them are parents (usually single mothers) trying to raise their children to the best of their abilities.
Hailey is a rebellious woman as evident from her body covered in elaborate tattoos, her habit of casual drug usage, briefly mentioned arrest record, and ghetto personality (everything from the hood voice accent to her swaggering walk and feisty nature stand out as strikingly authentic) which in most movies would have audiences ready to call child protective services themselves, but writer and director Sean Baker (most known for last year’s rave reviewed Sundance hit Tangerine) has made it his calling card to explore these complicated scenarios, adding layers upon layers of humanity and sympathy to people we would otherwise scrutinize and actively root against.
She may indeed be unfit (her 6-year old daughter Moonee does cause loads of trouble whenever getting together with the local children), but there is a passionate, motherly affection to her skyrocketing her likeability. Some disturbing things are done to make sure the two have a roof over their heads, hurting her and the audience in the process. The Florida Project depicts an absolutely riveting conflict tearing away at viewers’ mindset; should this child be separated from her mom? I don’t know how anyone can definitively say yes or no; there are just too many variables to weigh and ponder. Also, newcomer Bria Vinaite is a revaluation, embodying street smarts and toughness balanced with genuine love and care for Moonee. Sean Baker makes the wise creative decision of never passing judgment on her shady history and flaws; what we see is a caring mother and that’s all that matters.
However, where The Florida Project differs from similar cinematic offerings is the choice of following the children around for the majority of the running time, rather than explicitly show the rough lives of these parents. And even though the kids have picked up some inappropriate behavior from their parents (they beg for ice-cream money, spit on parked cars from the motel’s upper walkways, and curse like sailors sometimes), they are adorably innocent. What’s highly intriguing are the numerous methods they come up with to have fun and escape the troubles their adult counterparts face. Although, there are times where the children go too far and make life even harder, causing arguments and falling outs between certain parents that unfortunately greatly affect the amount of social interaction Moonee receives with her friends. It all blows up in an explosive scene that further complicates the throughline question of Hailey’s motherly qualities, undying love be damned.
Fortunately, Hailey has a guardian angel of sorts in the form of hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe putting in his best performance in years). He’s a stern, strict enforcer of the rules (especially with weekly rent payments) but on the inside has a soft spot for the situation young Moonee is in, and looks out for all of the kids. There’s even a segment where he shames and kicks out a probable pedophile creepily attempting to play with the children. One can’t help but feel he desperately wants Hailey to successfully find honest work and the means to provide, so he does give her pushes to correct her life. Toward the end of the film, he lights up a cigarette, with his facial expressions saying more than words ever could regarding his hidden pain.
By now it should be obvious that The Florida Project has a handful of incredible performances, but the biggest shock is that even with Dafoe’s career highlight turn, the relatively inexperienced group of child actors led by Brooklynn Prince’s Moonee (who shows wit beyond her early age and nails the emotional beats where most would fail) match his presence. The acting overflows with raw and genuine realness. Sean Baker even directs the film with numerous wide-angle shots (they often capture other citizens in the process going about daily routines, heightening the atmosphere), a bright color palette contrasting the seedy upbringing, and various artistic touches including the best framing of an angry “fuck you” roar ever. Without these performances, the film is in danger of losing all sense of sympathy, effectively crumbling to pieces.
The Florida Project does admittedly slightly drag at bits in the middle (I wouldn’t say scenes serve no purpose, as every scene does, but the proceedings can feel repetitive until the overall narrative picks up the pace), but the broader canvas makes a heartbreaking statement; this film is a real dagger in the heart. Opening up with “Celebrate Good Times” playing over the beginning credits, we do just that for the whole Summer, even if it’s taking selfies in front of a burning building considering it’s the pinnacle of excitement for these souls. Where we end up though, is bittersweet and heartbreaking; words can’t describe the simultaneous emotional devastation and wide-smiled happiness induced by the ending. I could be wrong, but it’s also the only scene that actually utilizes a musical score, which exponentially increases the impact. It will stick with you forever as it firmly cements The Florida Project as a fully realized work of powerfully human art.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com