The Florida Project
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite
A review by Andrew Rostan
There are still 2.5 months left in 2017. I’m confident enough to say The Florida Project is one of the five best films of the year. It is a movie that directly deals with its time and tells a timeless story. And it unfolds with the highest imaginable artistic quality.
This should be enough to end the review. But I need to back up these claims.
A Tale of Two Worlds
Sean Baker, the director and, with Chris Bergoch, co-writer, last hit screens with the 2015 Sundance sensation Tangerine. Shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine was a visually stunning, evocative tale of transgender sex workers and Armenian immigrants in L.A. Now, Baker has a full crew and the backing of distribution powerhouse A24. But The Florida Project remains committed, more than ever, to further highlighting people society often tries to marginalize.
The movie is set in Kissimmee, Florida (surprise), a town directly adjacent to Orlando. But Orlando has Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. Kissimmee is a realm of chain stores, strip malls, garish tourist trap attractions…and motels. Large, crumbling motels that now serve as cheap housing for people. Many of them are people of color, and all of them are working poor. Jobs are hard to come by. Helicopters constantly buzz through the landscape. Sex, substances, and violence perpetually crash onto the screen. And the amusements and resorts next door might as well be a continent away. Characters only glimpse Disney World through signs on the highway and fireworks displays watched from afar. Baker not only depicts this divide; he also portrays 21st century America to a tee as a land of a few haves and so many have-nots.
The Florida Project shows its aesthetic excellence and emotional resonance best in how Baker displays the two women at the story’s heart. Moonee, the six year-old protagonist, lives with her mother Halley in the purple behemoth that is the Magic Castle Motel. For Moonee, who has the whole summer ahead to play with old and new friends, Kissimmee is paradise. She leads her pals on ice cream expeditions, unleashes pranks straight out of a Mark Twain book, and marvels at all around her. Halley, in contrast, is as immature as she is loving towards her daughter. Unable to hold steady work, and with an attitude of defiance towards the uncaring world around her, Halley finds life stacked against her more and more with each passing day.
This contrast is magnified by the work of Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe. Moonee’s scenes are shot in bright sunlight with wide frames that capture the outlandishness of Kissimmee. (Especially a crucially ill-fated condo development.) But when Halley is the focus, Baker and Zabe employ darker tones and tighter angles, and the styles blur as the movie rolls onward.
Baker and Bergoch’s generously human screenplay would be for naught without good people to fill the roles. Thankfully, they found two first-time actors and an unlikely big name who all shine.
Six-year old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince steals the picture as Moonee. There is nothing unnatural or off-putting in Prince’s performance. She fills every movement with energy and talks with the natural precociousness of children learning about the world. Her character causes a bit of mayhem, but Prince is so winning that an audience more than loves her. Her laughter is contagious, and when circumstances make her break down, her sadness is visceral. We ultimately wish we could see the world as Moonee sees it, and have the simple faith in its goodness. (Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto, who play her best friends, are also superb.)
For Halley, Baker cast an entrepreneur and popular Instagrammer named Bria Vinaite. In fairness, Vinaite is not the most natural of actors. But she naturally takes to the camera. More importantly, she brings a brassness, dramatic flair, and steely will that suit Halley perfectly. Most of all, in a few key scenes, Vinaite perfectly conveys Halley’s desperation and love for her daughter.
However, the secret weapon of The Florida Project is a name well known to Rogues Portal readers. Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle. I have always loved Dafoe as both hero and villain but I may never have loved him more than in this film.
Dafoe is akin to John Wayne or Henry Fonda stepping out of a John Ford film. Baker frequently frames Dafoe as a lone figure against the sky — wiry, wrinkled, still handsome. He’s the man of integrity (with a past wisely teased out in hints) who holds this chaotic world together. As he performs maintenance with his son, handles Halley’s outbursts, or confronts unwelcome intruders, Dafoe turns up the sarcastic force but always reveals Bobby’s giant heart and strikes a perfect pitch with the motley crew surrounding him. It’s a far cry from his other winter movie, Justice League, and it’s outstanding.
The Florida Project builds to a final fifteen minutes both expected and surprising. We sense an inevitable conclusion, but how it transpires took my breath away. It must be experienced, ideally in cinemas on screens large enough for Baker’s vision.
See it! As an all too human comedy and a searing look at the world we live in, The Florida Project is a must-see.