The Florida Project Review
The Florida Project (2017) Film Review from the 55th Annual New York Film Festival, a movie directed by Sean Baker, starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Carl Bradfield, Jim R. Coleman, and Sabina Friedman-Seitz.
Though the frustrating issues of incapable moms, poverty, and lack of supervision are universal, Sean Baker really understands what these things look like in Florida, and what they feel like there. As someone who partly grew up close to where The Florida Project is set, it’s immediately apparent that Baker spent some time there, and did his research. There’s the ever-present interstate, across which stand a bunch of depressing, inane stores, pawn shops and fast food restaurants. The harshly grown grass with its paper-thin blades rises out of the sidewalks. The skies are gigantic, as only skies on a longitude such as Florida can be. It’s hot, especially during those grueling summer months. We’re at a motel of sorts, parked right betwixt all of these elements, where all its residents are just trying to live another day. This is where our story is set.
As the manager of this place, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) exhaustingly turns from one tenant’s complaints to another’s law-enforced eviction. Residents complain about broken ice machines, why the power is out, and heckle Bobby for asking about someone’s late rent. He has a lot of shit to do, and Halley (Bria Vinaite) isn’t making it any easier.
As the mother of Moonee (absolutely astonishingly acted by Brooklynn Prince), Halley recently lost her job and now just spends her time watching TV, illegally smoking indoors where she lives with her daughter, and asking her neighbor (and only friend) who works at a fast-food spot nearby for free burgers every day. Halley is what you would call a terrible mother, who never learned how to handle anger, keep a job, or stay out of trouble. She loves her daughter, of course – but letting her run wild and not being there for imperative disciplining and the actual raising, is not something that will turn out well. It’s probably how Halley was raised, herself.
While we watch Halley get into local shenanigans and experiment with all sorts of money-making schemes (selling stolen cologne, prostitution), Moonee is filled with powerful glee and enthusiasm as she runs around the ‘neighborhood’ with her friends. She just wants to play, and laugh, and there is so much genuine enjoyment found in watching these little rascals run rampant, that The Florida Project lives between these two poles throughout – the horribly depressing realities of bad moms hooked on a cycle of making mistakes, and the beautiful truth that children like Moonee are born every day. It’s just a shame that the latter always get ruined by the former.
Sean Baker has clearly upped his game with this movie. While I thoroughly enjoyed Tangerine (2015), and admired its do-it-yourself nature and production wholeheartedly – The Florida Project seems far more substantial, regarding an assured cinematography, efficient shot-direction, and narrative storytelling. It’s so much fun to run around with these kids, before switching to Dafoe’s character and his issues, before having to return to Halley to watch her fuck her life up. Fortunately, this movie never dwells on anything too long, so these elements are perfectly balanced. There’s a moment toward the end that can make a grown man cry, especially those who have had people like Halley in their lives. It’s not fair, and it hurts to watch kids go through the same traumas that you might have. And that’s where Baker switches things up – going from 0 to 100 at the drop of a dime, for just a few seconds. This tonal shift at the end, while thoroughly confusing and shocking, was also truly heartfelt, and kind.
My audience was laughing at every joke, sighing at every frustrating character decision, and sniffling at the sadder moments – the movie played perfectly. And don’t think that this is an ‘arthouse’ movie by the guy who made an ‘iPhone movie’, and that you’d be bored or your friends wouldn’t enjoy this. This movie is hilarious, continuously entertaining, and really puts you in that place, that sunny but impoverished Florida motel. I highly recommend spending some time there.
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