'The Florida Project'
Following up his attention-grabbing, iPhone-shot ‘Tangerine’, writer/director Sean Baker once again turns his knowing eyes to a uniquely colorful group of outsiders on the fringes of society. This time, he has a budget and 35mm film to work with, but the results are no less humane or empathetic. ‘The Florida Project’ is a coming-of-age story about struggling through poverty that never judges too harshly, manipulates too much, or ignores painful truths. It’s at once a beautifully fleeting and harrowingly powerful experience, sure to be one of the finest films of the year.
The film stars the remarkably talented Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, a young girl growing up in a motel in the fringes of Orlando. Her mother (Bria Vinaite) is perpetually out of work and, though loving, is negligently lost in her own problems. Moonee’s friends are similarly lost and lonely kids, banding together to find playtime along a highway of strip malls and their pastel-colored castle of a hotel. Because they’re among the businesses around Disney World hoping to exploit the tourist destination, everything is oversized and designed to look like some sort of bootleg childish fantasy. That gives the backdrop of the story a sense of place both magical and tragically crumbling. Amid all the funny and fascinating vignettes, characters are formed and a deeply moving plot emerges so subtly it’s hard to notice. Central to it all is a world-weary hotel manager played by Willem Dafoe. The rare kindly and warm-hearted performance by the longtime character actor is easily one of his best.
Possibly the most remarkable thing about this little miracle of a movie is the location. The castle-shaped impoverished motels and oversized faded fantasies outside Disney World give the film a surreal beauty, tragic reality, and hint of magic realism. While Baker in no way hides from the darker nature of his story, he also presents this impoverished world as a place of play and imagination for the energetic young Moonee. This odd outpost is a living playground that gives a visual life to her gleeful imagination, as well as a sadder reality for those looking. It’s an amazing place that Baker uncovered, and the fact that it’s an untouched reality makes his film that much more beautiful and heartbreakingly real.
Over the course of the vignettes that grow into a narrative, Baker teases out his players with love and care. Prince is a magical presence at the center, both feeling like a lovably energetic young child and also somewhat annoying in her squealing antics. It’s a truthful look at an unchecked child, not remotely precocious or infantilized . The fact that Baker coaxed such a rounded and resonant performance out of the young actress is something special. The adults are just as well observed. Vinaite is potent as a negligent and desperate mother given too much responsibility too young and also unapologetically her own worst enemy. She never forces sympathies, but feels so truthfully lost that she earns empathy. Best of all is Dafoe’s weary father figure of sorts, so openhearted and helpful yet unwilling to go too far. His carefully crafted performance mingles so freely with the untrained and local performers that the line between reality and acting blends. It all feels so real, so tossed-off and observational, like watching a documentary of captured moments.
Of course, it’s not a documentary. There’s a distinct purpose and design to all the gently observed reality. Baker is just wise and sensitive enough as a filmmaker not to show his hand. It starts with the beautiful and evocative images, carefully stylized and meaningfully used to frame loosey-goosey impov realism. As the story goes on and the seemingly fleeting and disconnect scenes add up, something deeper emerges. Before you realize it, everything slides into place. Every small moment takes on rich thematic and narrative meaning. Every character serves a distinct purpose. It happens so subtly it barely registers at first, then the emotional weight of the film comes crashing down. All the jokes fade. The purpose of the story emerges as something deeply powerful. Then it ends with a magical and even fantastical final scene too beautiful to spoil or explain, but it’s safe to say that it’ll be one of the most memorable and moving finales of any film this year.
‘The Florida Project’ is a special film to be cherished. Hopefully it finds the audience it deserves.