Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite
It's kind of funny, but my reaction to Sean Baker's The Florida Project is sort of the opposite to my reaction to his last film, 2015's Tangerine. That film I felt was overall a decent movie with a great ending; this one I felt was a nearly great movie with a bad ending. Both films are about disenfranchised people living on the fringes of society and both stories are told in a way that manages to be non-judgmental, even when the characters are doing objectively terrible/harmful things, with Baker's objective being to explore rather than criticize how people get by when they have next to nothing and exist in that societal space that is essentially invisible. They're both films that are strong in character moments, with The Florida Project being the more free-floating of the two - though its casual, slice of life approach to storytelling shouldn't be mistaken for plotlessness. It's a skillfully made movie, often visually arresting, and centers on a performance that is likely to be talked about a lot as we head into awards season.
Existing in the shadow of Disney World, which is ever present in the film in the form of small businesses trying to stake their claim by evoking the idea of Disney, albeit in a sort of chintzy, kind of rundown sort of way, The Florida Project is set at a motel ("The Magic Castle") populated not by tourists, but by extended-stay guests for who are only ever a couple of hundred dollars away from homelessness at any given moment. The motel is run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a good guy who tries his best to keep things running smoothly with the limited resources available to him and has a soft-spot for his tenants even as he's taking a hard-line with them, and home to the film's hero, Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince), a six year old who lives there with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and spends her days hanging out with other kids who live at The Magic Castle and those who live at the motel next door.
Set over the course of the summer holiday, the episodes of the story largely center on how Moonnee and her friends keep themselves entertained, running around outside, inventing games to play, and hanging around near an ice-cream shop and convincing strangers to buy them a cone to share. They're kids who don't have much but, because they're kids and their knowledge of the world is limited to their experience and to the experience of those around them, they don't know that they don't have much. They have as much as everyone else they know and so they proceed happily about their days, not wanting for anything because they don't know that there's anything to want for. It's because of this that Baker is able to tell the story on two levels, one which is limited by Moonee's understanding of the world around her, and another informed by what the audience can see going on around her. The Florida Project is a sad story about people stuck in poverty, the adults sometimes driven to desperate acts just to keep their heads above water for one more day, but it doesn't feel sad because there's so much joy in it as a result of its focus on the children's perspective.
Although it depicts interactions which feel very much off the cuff, and has that naturalistic feeling that tends to come from films featuring non or first time actors (Dafoe is, of course, a veteran of the screen, but Prince and Vinaite are newcomers), The Florida Project slowly reveals itself to be as tightly, precisely plotted as it is sharply observant of its characters. Moments and scenes that appear to exist merely for the "slice of life" quality later reveal themselves to be part of a chain that leads to the crisis that meets the characters at the end, and Baker pulls this off by performing a bit of sleight of hand, disguising the mechanics of the storytelling by allowing the cinematography (Alexis Zabe is on hand as cinematographer) to call attention to itself through a number of striking shots and set ups, including a scene in which the power temporarily goes out at the motel and the camera, situated outside, watches as the residents start coming out of their rooms, their personal dramas temporarily interrupted, that is staged almost like a play and functions to give a splash of character to the setting itself.
The Florida Project is a film with many strengths, including the central performance of young Prince, a little ball of charisma who effortlessly hits the film's comedic beats and brings more shading to the dramatic moments than you would expect of someone her age (she's reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhane Wallis in this respect) and the supporting performance of Vinaite is also really solid. Halley is not a very good mother, lacking not merely in resources and support but in maturity, too, but she's a mother who never gives any doubt of her unconditional love for her daughter - this becomes particularly true towards the end when Halley has to reckon with some of her choices and Vinaite makes it clear, with little more than the look in her eyes and her manner, that Halley knew what she would be walking into and just wanted to give Moonee a good day before it happened. Overall the film is very good, carefully crafted and acutely observed, but its final couple of minutes, in which the film suddenly switches its filming style and moves from intense realism to overt fantasy, completely took me out of the movie. I'm sure that the ending will have its defenders, but it really didn't work for me and resulted in me leaving the theater on a note of dissatisfaction.