Writer/Director Sean Baker adds another human depiction to his credible filmography, this time in ‘The Florida Project’. Halley (Bria Vinaite) lives with her six year old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in a budget motel along one of the commercial strips catering to the Disney World tourist clientele outside Orlando, Florida. Halley, who survives largely on welfare, has little respect for people, especially those who cross her, it an attitude that she has passed down to Moonee, who curses and gives the finger like her mother. Although the motel’s policy is not to allow long term rentals, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager, has made arrangements for people like Halley to live there while not undermining the policy as he realizes that many such tenants have no place to go otherwise. Halley, Moonee and Moonee’s friends, who live in the motel or others like it along the strip and who she often drags into her disruptive pranks, are often the bane of Bobby’s existence, but while dealing with whatever problem arises, Bobby has a soft spot especially for the children and thus, by association, their parents, as he knows that Moonee and others like her. ‘The Florida Project’ is rated R for adult language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.
Director Sean Baker has quite a unique perspective of the world. After presenting us with an original take in 2015’s ‘Tangerine’, in which he shot the entirety of his film on an Iphone, Baker returns with another unorthodox reflection of today’s youth. Through that vantage point, we get perhaps the most unabashed depiction of modern day parenting that goes a long way in pointing out the true value of a shining parental unit. Baker is a filmmaker who values honesty first and foremost in his films, and because of such ‘The Florida Project’ has the ability to take this story as deep as it once to go. The film once again exposes us to the unlimited amount of sunshine in its beautiful landscapes, this time in Florida, hinting at the manufactured illusion that is the Disney World dream, and while the film articulately showcases those illustriously decorated buildings in all of their vibrant colors, there’s certainly enough emphasis below the surface to speak volumes to the audience that something deeper is going on. Almost in a way that is similar to the picket fences theory, in that the most troubling households take place behind the prettiest houses, ‘The Florida Project’ too concludes that hotel lifestyle isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
While shooting a film’s entirety with an Iphone is a tough gimmick to beat, I can say that Baker at least maintains the kind of consistency in his candid photography for the picture that treated my eyes to something tasty behind every corner. This is a handheld camera kind of style, and this decision works wonders in presenting many angles and perspectives to our central characters for the film; the children. So many of the shots are tight-knit with over the shoulder following shots, or single frame luring shots that have our characters walk into what’s already running. Besides this, there are some gorgeously decadent panning shots from side to side that often gave off the illusion of a moving screen in our auditorium. Baker has enough confidence to leave the camera on for these long takes because he believes in his child-dominated ensemble cast that can hold and maintain the attention of the audience without fail, and his faith is rewarded in spades with such sleek style that highlights the domestic landscape with tasty sunshine that covers the properties.
The uniqueness isn’t just in the visual spectrum of the film, but also in the tweeks made in cast and story that cement a feel of documentary filmmaking. I say that because much of the film doesn’t feel like it follows a script towards a particular outline here. Instead, there’s that feel that Baker has stumbled across these everyday people (Minus Dafoe) and decided to turn a camera on to see what springs. The majority of the cast are amateur actors and actresses, some of which are acting in the first role of their careers. This adds weight and believability to the ideal that maybe we are watching something that wasn’t intended to be seen, making you wonder just how truly dramatic it can get at a hotel. If it’s drama they want, it’s drama they will get, because this film never relents on its tight grip upon the audience. Because there are children involved, it’s easy to imagine that this film could get a bit manipulative, but their trials and tribulations feel authentic because of what little adult supervision is cast over them. The film is just shy of two hours, and for the most part paced accordingly, however unlike a Hollywood script that will take the audience on a pre-determined roller-coaster of up and down, ‘The Florida Project’ maintains the balance of life, in that some times are smooth, and some times are unpredictable. In this manner, the screenplay replicates life wonderfully, using boredom as a comparison to excite when something does come to fruition.
Without question, my least favorite aspect of the film and one that Baker still needs help on is his editing transitions. To say the sequencing from scene to scene felt rocky throughout the film is an understatement. There were many times during the movie when I either couldn’t tell how much time had passed between two scenes, or they felt out of place with the plotting of storyboards. The former is great when you’re dealing with montages or scenes that duplicate the certain event that the children are living through, but when it’s used in a way that divides the transitions, it throws you off from where we are in a scene or the script. While this is only an occasional problem, I can say that it brutally throws off the pacing of the second act in particular, feeling like the screenplay is searching for something of equal value to the first and third acts that transpire smoothly because of their fluidity in keeping the entertainment level high. With this fix, Baker could definitely be one of the very best directors going today, but his unorthodox method of transition is sure to alienate some who feel like scenes could be cut far too quickly or not quick enough.
There has also been a lot of commotion about the ending that many have shunned because of its off-the-wall final shots that feel so jarringly foreign from the rest of the film. While I can say that I don’t have this same particular problem with the final scenes, I can say that the ending feels abruptly forced and very bitter when compared to the magnetic pull from the glowing performance of Prince when the film relies on her. My suggestion was that the film ended two minutes prior when it felt like our nerves couldn’t be anymore shattered from the crippling blow of devastation that rivets the inhabitants of the hotel. This wouldn’t have been as pleasing to audiences looking for the lighter side of conclusions, but it would be the glaring example of parental harm to impressionable minds, giving Baker a side of bravery and attitude with his characters that wouldn’t disappoint in profound reliability.
Despite this being a child-led ensemble for 90% of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised at just how effortless these kids were with sinking into some pretty meaty performances. My problem with kid actors is their inexperience that usually hinders a film’s immersion whole, but the value of the youth presented in this film serves as a reminder that even this critic can be wrong. Brooklyn Prince is a wonder of imagination with enough sass and personality that makes her irresistible even when she’s doing things that we know are wrong. Prince’s Moonee is definitely a product of her environment, but the sweet and tender side to her sometimes destructive personality is still in there fighting to get out and salvage this dreaming soul. Willem Dafoe also portrays one of my absolute favorite characters of the fall movie season as Bobby, the sometimes ignorant manager who feels like the best parental figure that these kids got. Bobby sometimes turns an eye for his own good, and there’s definitely a hint of family troubles with his own kin, but Dafoe’s moral stigma and protective shield is a constant reminder of everything that is good and could be again with these struggling people.
THE VERDICT – ‘The Florida Project’ and Sean Baker alike, raise the kind of sobering questions about parental struggles in a world still learning that pleasures with its poignancy. Because so much of its visual appeal springs from the unorthodox approaches of a prestigious stage hand, it’s easy for the production to overlook some glaring problems of sequencing that just doesn’t add up. Dafoe and his rag-tag group of youths remind us of the invincibility associated with being young thanks to some nuanced performances that always maintains the light-hearted adventure of being a child before the rules of society catch up.