REVIEW — “The Florida Project”
Sean Baker made his mark on the film circuit with an incredible debut in Tangerine – a gorgeous, wholesomely original film that was shot entirely on an iPhone. With his second feature, The Florida Project, the film is shot more traditionally and cinematically, but Baker’s resounding voice and eye for detail on realism and character remains to be as prominent and mesmerizing as ever. By all accounts, this should be nothing more than a depressing watch as you explore the in’s and out’s of a poverty stricken side of Orlando that even I, a lifetime resident of the community, was unaware of. But for a majority of it’s running time, the film somehow strikes a legitimately perfect balance of making this a joyous look at finding the beauty in the worst of situations and conveying that childlike glee when you have nothing else to hold onto alongside harshly depicting the hardships and circumstances that these families are forced to live under. I’ve truly never seen a film in my lifetime balance such tricky tones and subject matter together, but that marks for only one of The Florida Project‘s many achievements.
The film primarily follows Moonee (played by the incredible Brooklynn Prince), an adventurous six-year old who lives with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who is equally fantastic) at the Magic Castle motel, as they struggle to find different ways to pay rent on time and find whatever joy they can in this community. While Sean Baker’s direction and view of Central Florida is almost more than enough to make this a must-see, the performances by Prince and Vinaite are two of the most realistic and beautiful depictions of realistic humans and a genuine mother/daughter relationship that I’ve ever seen. Most of this authenticity comes from the fact that they are both unknowns and have a seemingly effortless quality to their performances. They subtly and quietly get under your skin and into your heart, so when the emotional moments come along, they unexpectedly hit you in the most sincere of ways. This never once feels like you’re watching a film, but like you’re simply peeking into the lives of people and their everyday hardships.
The most entertaining sequences of the film are of Moonee and her friends making their own adventures, whether it be sharing a single ice cream cone together or meddling in buildings and rooms that they aren’t supposed to be in or ticking off the stressed-out adults that they come across. This easily could’ve gone sideways when trying to add some much needed levity to such serious subject matter, but instead does the opposite and adds for something that’s true to life and how children can find joy in the worst of situations. The bridge between the comedy and drama is Willem Dafoe’s character Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle hotel. Bobby simultaneously entertains the antics of the children as he realizes it’s all they really have as well as keeping the adults on site accountable and having a tight leash on the activities occurring on his property. This is one of Dafoe’s more quieter performances in recent memory, which makes for something a little more powerful and a lot more genuine than I was expecting.
The third act of this film is where it goes from a dazzling, highly entertaining, great piece of original cinema to being an actual masterpiece in my eyes. The almost effortless way the film transitions into even darker and more serious subject matter is one of the most impressive directorial techniques I’ve seen done in quite sometime. The emotional element here is really what makes this as memorable as it is for me, as it walks a very fine line of being absolutely soul crushing and completely genuine and human when trying to convey its message and wrap up the story of these characters. As I previously stated, the most impressive quality here is that it never feels like you’re watching a movie, but as if you’re peeking into the lives of different people. You get an emotional moment that is critical to the journey of these characters, but in such a quiet and gorgeous fashion that makes it all the more effective for those who are already wrapped up in the beauty of the film and the subtle touches of humanity that it has to offer. The Florida Project might be the best film I’ve seen all year, and it reminds me why independent filmmaking is the most important art form we have in our world today. 5/5.