The Florida Project, director Sean Baker’s follow up to the highly acclaimed Tangerine, takes place on the outskirts of Disney world, an Orlando-area that is plagued by poverty. In the Magic Castle—a motel named loosely off of a Disney property, seemingly as a way to drum up more business—children run about in the Summer heat doing whatever they please.
One of these children is Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We are introduced to her when she and two of her friends decide to run off to a neighboring motel and spit on someone’s car.
It doesn’t feel like a fitting introduction to a child character who we are about to follow for the next two hours, but that’s how it is. There’s no moralizing or teaching moment. Moonee is a character that is allowed to exist on screen as a true child. There is no attempt to write her smarter than her years or as a pure innocent.
This is a refreshing change of pace, as much of The Florida Project proves to be. The film does not put itself on tracks, towing along a narrative path with one pointed resolution. It rambles. The children’s antics play out as vignettes. The first half of the film is so separated that it begins to feel like there will be no discernible plot at all.
Where this meandering could hurt the pacing, Baker’s film handles tone in such a way that it is consistently engaging. There is a lightness in seeing the world through child’s eyes, but there is also something grim about it. We have more knowledge than the kids about what kind of life they are living in, the dramatic irony of which breeds a sadness that oddly complements the humor of the film quite well.
But there is also a grimness to what the children do for fun. Sometimes it is innocent, sometimes it has dire consequences. There is a devilish quality to Moonee and her ability to rope her friends into negative acts. But there is an indelible sweetness to her personality, as well.
In one scene, she sits with her friend on a tree and says, in an adequately childish manner, that it is her favorite tree because it fell over but is still growing. In a way, this describes Moonee’s life. She is living in a world that is not conducive for her upbringing, and yet she remains a child.
After the first hour, the film centers in on a general plot, which mainly involves Moonee’s mother Hallee (Bria Vinaite) and the lengths that she has to go to to provide for her daughter.
This sounds like a conventional plot, but it is handled in a refreshing way. There is never any waxing poetic or sentimental about the plight of our characters. We merely see what happens through their day-to-day, and the results become surprisingly gripping by the film’s final act.
Baker is fascinated with architecture in this film, and it supplements the themes of the film beautifully. The buildings that we see, often straight on and in full extreme long shots, are run down but shine with the remnant energy of a happy-go-lucky tourist trap. These shots make the film look striking. With this and Tangerine, which features Donut Time prominently, Baker shows that he cares about the immediate environments that his characters live in.
With this and the acting performances, the world of The Florida Project feels lived in. Now, it is common to say of a good realist film that it feels “lived in.” But The Florida Project does this better than a film has in a long time. Watching the movie makes you feel like you are leaning against the balcony of the Magic Castle—as Willem Dafoe does in the best shot in the film—watching as the film plays out around you.
By the way, this shot, in which Dafoe stands smoking a cigarette and the automated lights of the building he manages switch on, is truly beautiful. I don’t even really know why, it just sticks in your mind.
Dafoe stands out in this role. Some are saying it is the role of his career, and he certainly embodies the persona of a guy we sympathize and align ourselves with. He does this with ease. The film’s weak point may be the relationship between Dafoe’s Bobby and his son. It is the least developed idea in the film. Still, Dafoe slips so easily into this character that we are immediately convinced that we can be on his side.
Dafoe may be the most obvious star of the film, but there are enthralling turns from the newcomers as well. This is Vinaite’s first film role, and she makes it look as though she has been working in the business for years. Prince, Vinaite, and Dafoe are a triumvirate force that holds down the fort of realism from beginning to end.
And thus, The Florida Project is a film that feels natural without slipping into the maudlin. It bounces lightly while never disparaging the reality of the situation. It can be called a social problem film, and it is, but it never feels like one. That is what makes The Florida Project one of the biggest cinematic successes of the year.
The Florida Project: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)