Film Review: The Florida Project

Sean Baker once again pulls us into a world we never thought we could fall in love with.
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Sean Baker’s latest immersion into the lives of America’s disenfranchised is set in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando, its title derived from the original working name for Disneyland, which looms over the lives of his characters. They include Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a beyond-precocious six-year-old, who lives with her sometime prostitute mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a motel-cum-transient residence, presided over by an eternally harried manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). A total product and reflection of the volatile, violent, lowlife world of her mother, Moonee is a bratty little Alpha, leading her little friends all kinds of astray, culminating in their setting fire to a deserted building. This results in her best friend being forbidden to play with her by his waitress mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), and that leads to a very hostile estrangement from Halley, once a good friend of hers.

From its very first scene of kids spitting on an irate woman’s car, The Florida Project rivets your attention vide the vast amounts of artistry and authenticity which inevitably layer Sean Baker’s work. Desperate, often quite ugly lives of not enough money and very murky futures are endured in the shadow of huge, kitsch-y and cartoonish commercial structures, redolent of a now totally extinct American era, once filled with anything-is-possible promise. Bratty Moonee and forever-embattled Halley are willfully unsympathetic, with a brash and abrasive manner, yet, like Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Baker’s brilliant Tangerine, you are completely won over by their feistiness and the rueful realization that they are only their own worst enemy. The teeming and very rude life in and around Moonee’s motel home is enthrallingly captured with a genuine, if quite shaggy, affection. Wonderfully edited by Baker and photographed by Alexis Zabe, filled with moments of found beauty amidst the tacky inns, convenience stores and diners, and cannily executed without a mood-nudging musical score until its fraught finale, The Florida Project is a highly worthy entry in the intrepid Baker’s laudable oeuvre, which already marks him as the salubriously adventurous Vittorio De Sica of our time.

The cast, from top to bottom, comprised of many non-pros, is frankly flawless. Prince simply gives one of the great child performances ever filmed; there’s almost a fully grown mean girl—even obscene curmudgeon of an old lady—trapped somewhere in her tiny body. This is one defiantly tough child whose idea of innocent play somehow naturally veers into outright transgression, making her ultimate meltdown into sobbing baby needing her mommy all the more devastating. Vinaite, here a trashed but nevertheless potent beauty, gives a searing, lived-in performance as what used to be called a total tramp. She is as instantly and brassily engaging as Joan Blondell ever was, until her most brutal outrage, which will leave you dazed with horror.

With this film, in a very Steve Buscemi-like role, Dafoe makes a comfortable slide into character actor (and could very well come away with an Oscar). Dealing with all manner of motel human ridiculousness with the patience of Job, he’s someone you just know, intensely likeable and, when he suddenly encounters a flock of cranes in his driveway and gently shoos them away with gentlemanly good grace, the film once more enters that magical terrain of sudden delight, which the very open and fertile, improvisatory mindset and approach of its director so often makes wonderfully possible.

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