Florida Project, The (2017)

The Florida Project follows a group of kids living in poverty just outside Disney World.  Led by Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, the small group of kids explore and wreak havoc on the motel they call home.  As the children play around the motel, they reveal the poverty that surrounds a fairy-tale world, through the eyes of a child.  It inspiring how children can still find the beauty and lust for life even when the deck is stacked against them.

With the exception of Willem Dafoe, as the dedicated superintendent of the motel, every other cast member was an unknown.  The absence of recognizable faces made the experience more immersive and genuine. Sean Baker’s unique style has a grit and genuine nature that makes his films gripping from start to finish.  At least this was true of The Florida Project and Tangerine.

I was on edge pretty much right off the bat.  This was mainly due to the fact that the audience is following the rambunctious, adventurous, and unsupervised children.  I perpetually had the feeling that something bad was going to happen.  This unsettling feeling that I had throughout the film made me focus more and get more engaged in story line.

The energy throughout the film is similar to Baker’s other film, Tangerine.  The use of iPhone footage is less prevalent than Tangerine, yet still used in The Florida Project.  The raw feeling that this style brings, makes the film feel more like a documentary.  The use of this guerrilla film making emphasizes the subject matter perfectly.

Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch did an excellent job, once again, in writing an unusual and original screenplay focused on a specific American community.  The audience is able to gather a large amount of backstory from the characters simply by the circumstances and how everyone interacts with the world around them.  Each character has depth and that creates a strong foundation for the film as a whole.  Again, much like Tangerine, Baker and Bergoch write a story focused on a marginalized group of people who have powerful messages that everyone can learn from.  The powerful and eye-opening subject matter will make future projects a must see for me.

It was interesting how the story was written with a mixture of perspectives.  The audience primarily follows the children, yet the adults that surround them are ever-present as well.  There is the carefree, almost whimsical, nature of the children finding adventures in their surroundings.  Even though the kids are in a less than ideal situation, living in a motel on a week to week basis is a less than stable upbringing, they seem to have fun and maintain a positive attitude. Forced to roam the streets alone and entertain themselves, the children are forced to learn life on their own.

The adult figures in the film range from actual guardians, like Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, to playmate, like Moonee’s mother, Halley, played by Bria Vinaite.  Bobby’s role as the building manager is really the role of Dad; constantly trying to maintain order and safety.  He is the watchful eye that protects the kids from danger and tries to keep the tenants on the straight path.  Halley is a young mother, in over her head, that is forced to do whatever it takes to get the rent each week.  Her carefree attitude, that is clearly passed down to Moonee, makes her a blast to be around if you are a kid, while simultaneously being a danger and terrible influence.  To her credit, there is a ‘take no bullshit’ attitude that Halley is able to pass down to Moonee as well.  A relentless and scrappy nature that is definitely a strength that she is passing along to Moonee.

The ability for the depth of each character to be brought out is a testament to the acting by the entire cast.  Surprisingly, The Florida Project was the first acting job for many of the cast members.  The fact that so may unrecognizable faces, Dafoe excluded, were cast, made the film seem more genuine.

Disney World’s aura is deeply rooted in the environment and in the character’s everyday life, yet the audience only gets rare glimpses of Disney World and the tourists that flock to it.  It is all about the tourists.  The tourism that boost the economy around the theme park, shines through periodically throughout the film.  Shots of Disney outlets, concerns about the children bothering the almighty tourists, and the patriarchal family members that keep strip clubs and call girls busy, are all reminders of how important the tourism and Disney are to the area.

The sleazy aspects of what Disney world brings are clear and apparent, although, there is also a joyful wonder and sense of adventure it brings.  The poverty that Moonee and her gang of adventurers live in is less than ideal.  However, watching a day in the life of Moonee doesn’t seem too bad all the time.  There is a herd of children that occupy the motel and that brings a strong social life to Moonee and the other principle children.

The children are not able to go to Disney World, but the children are able to adapt their surroundings to mimic the adventure-land on the other side of the tracks.  Baker commented on this in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

“It’s left up to interpretation but it’s not supposed to be literal, it’s supposed to be a moment in which we’re putting the audience in the headspace of a child,” he clarifies. “We’ve been watching Moonee use her imagination and wonderment throughout the entire film to make the best of the situation she’s in — she can’t go to the Animal Kingdom, so she goes to the “safari” behind the motel and looks at cows, she goes to the abandoned condos because she can’t go to the Haunted Mansion. And in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience, ‘If you want a happy ending, you’re gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that’s the only way to achieve it.”1

Baker and Bergoch found an interesting and powerful subject matter to turn their focus on.  Following the multiple perspectives of life in a Florida community in Orlando shows a diverse portrait of America and what it embodies.  A place that is built on the idea of a magical kingdom full of princesses and wholesome cartoon characters is surrounded by desperation, poverty, and debauchery, much like a medieval kingdom surrounding a palace. I am excited to see future projects by the duo and see how they can continue to pick out the nuances of minority American communities.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Sean Baker

Cinematography: Alexis Zabe

Written by: Sean BakerChris Bergoch

Edited by: Sean Baker

Music by: Lorne Balfe

Starring: Brooklynn PrinceBria VinaiteWillem Dafoe

Runtime: 1h 51m

Genre: Drama

Distributed by: A24

1 – https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/florida-project-ending-director-sean-baker-explains-meaning-how-he-did-it-1047215

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