Sunshine State of Mind: THE FLORIDA PROJECT Film Review

By at October 24, 2017 | 10:10 am | Print

4.5 / 5 stars

The Florida Project Quad Movie Poster

It takes a few moments to get acclimated to the beginning of The Florida Project, moments that are both confusing and utterly delightful. The camera angles are low. The dialogue is loud and unintelligible. There’s some sort of excitement going on, but we’re not sure why. This is how street-savvy DIY filmmaker Sean Baker introduces a group of grade school-age moppets, yelling and running amok across the adjacent roadside motels where they live, along a stretch of highway in Orlando, Florida.

We quickly slip into the kids’ small, spontaneous world and it’s far more entertaining than you’d imagine. Yes, there is a looming sadness that hovers over The Florida Project, with its poor, single-parent motel dwellers piled into small rooms with their kids; but the foundation of the movie is the boundless, life-affirming energy of happy kids on summer break. It’s a driving force and it’s infectious.

The story focuses on the playtime and perils of young Moonee (a little sparkplug named Brooklynn Prince) and her whiny, foul-mouthed mom, Hallee (Instagram discovery Bria Vinaite). The little one is an adorable ball of energy who skips and dances more often than she walks. The older one is practically a kid herself, always about the hustle, stealing from tourists and glomming free breakfasts from a neighbor who toils at a nearby diner. Hallee and Moonee bond by dancing together in the rain and scarfing pizza in bed, but we know mom is setting a dangerously awful example for her cute little charge. And ultimately, others see it too.

Baker is a master at capturing the kids’ unscripted movement and chatter with some gorgeously orchestrated photography. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe floats the camera just behind Moonee and her pals (with cute names like Jancey and Scootee), following them giddily as they venture off to another misadventure. At other moments, she and Baker pull in tight on Moonee and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they share a secret, the close-ups isolating the two youngsters in a blissful world of their own.

Scene from The Florida Project

The single source of real-life sanity is Bobby the motel manager, played with a lovely blend of patience and humor by Willem Dafoe. This guy becomes the de facto caretaker and caregiver for so many of his “tenants” while dealing with his own baggage, which Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch choose not to detail. In the longest and most frightening sequence of the film, Bobby makes sure a troubled drifter stays away from the kids and off the premises, Dafoe both personable and threatening. The scene gives Dafoe some room to move, and lets us know he’ll come through for kids like Moonee if he must. As the required anchor, Dafoe is intriguing.

Remarkably, the action between Prince and Vinaite is on par with that of their far more experienced castmate. In a beautiful scene of both joy and resignation, Moonee delights in every bite of a stolen buffet breakfast, giving her mom and the camera an eat-a-thon play-by-play while Hallee looks on, finally quiet, a sense of sadness just barely surfacing. Here, we see a real “director of actors,” as they say, utilizing the strengths of his fresh players.

Anyone who’s seen Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine—also about the daily hustle—knows the guy makes the most of a final scene. The coda to The Florida Project is no different, an oft-debated centerpiece of conversations about the film. I’ll save my opinion—suffice to say, we could talk about it for hours. And that’s often the sign of a great movie.

Cinema Stuff Featured Independent Film Movie Posters Reviews , , ,

Leave a Reply