James Cole Clay // Film Critic
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a bright ray of sunshine with some neglect and abuse peppered throughout. Director Sean Baker’s follow up to 2015’s TANGERINE depicts the freewheeling vastness of childhood that is rarely captured on-screen with such tenderness. Baker’s films have always had this voyeuristic quality that captures the authenticity of impoverished America without judgement. Baker’s film is a loose project that takes place essentially in one location (In this case, a run down purple motel right next to Disney World), but that doesn’t give Baker boundaries; this opens up the audience to a culture that is rarely captured so organically.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT chronicles the day-in, day-out lives of three children and a young mother as they hang around looking to scratch out a dollar, by any scheme necessary. But while the film lacks a traditional three act structure, Baker (who also edited the film), includes plenty slice of life anecdotes to latch onto as we follow the perspective of Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who struggles to pay rent and keep her daughter out of trouble. If it wasn’t for the endearing care of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the castle would come crumbling down.
For a film to be truly great, there has to be adept and daring filmmaking at work with thematic truths to grab onto; Baker achieves this in spades. He builds an expansive cinematic world out of few locations, cobbles in improvisational scenes of dialogue from Brooklyn Prince, who at six years old is a master improvisor and tells a genuinely heartwarming/breaking story.
While it would be simpler to tell a story about a group of kids wreaking havoc upon a motel — a la Amblin Entertainment — Baker balances the story Halley and her “ineptness” as a mother, but he’s not interested in judging her lifestyle choices, we’re here to observe. Vinaite, who Baker discovered on Instagram is a non-actor who captivates the screen much in the same way Sasha Lane did in last year’s AMERICAN HONEY, but better. She works the camera and draws attention, but never demands it even in some of the more boisterous scenes. To portray this life its got to be authentic and THE FLORIDA PROJECT has that. Dafoe’s work here is against type, Bobby is a sweet and gruff guy who plays by the rules and breaks them. He’s constantly annoyed by Halley and Moonee, but secretly adores their presence and is in some ways a protector.
Shot in Orlando, the Magic Castle Motel is big, purple and perfectly imperfect. The duality of a place where dreams come true right next to a place where dreams go to die is poetry in motion with a dose of reality. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is sweet and touching and should garner Baker the attention he deserves as a filmmaker who created a film that appeared to be harder to make than what is show on the surface. All the moving parts, from the acting, to the editing and tone, all work in concert to craft a film that is unforgettably simple and undeniably special.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT opens today in select theater and will expand its release in the weeks following.