The Two Reviews: The Florida Project (2017 Sean Baker)

“…several scenes are improvised and have a beautiful natural quality…”

The Florida Project is a warm but sometimes poignant drama of poorer citizens who live a day to day existence on a drab estate on the outskirts of Disney World, Orlando. It depicts a slice of life of Orlando’s under-class through the eyes and adventures of six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her young friends who live on the estate. The film takes its name from the massive land-grab called the ‘Florida Project’ by Walt Disney in the mid-1960s. In addition to building a new Disneyland, Walt Disney claimed that the massive surrounding estate would be a pilot city for the future, called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Actually, it was to ensure Disney had a monopoly on the satellite industries and real estate. It is this ‘futuristic’ real estate project where the film is set; but some decades have passed, and the aging motels and apartments are now rented out short-term to Orlando’s under-class of poor. In the Magic Castle (a real motel on the estate), lives young unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee and other characters in the film. Halley is more like an unruly but doting big sister, and Moonee adores her and copies her care-free, break-the-rules attitude.

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The camera follows Moonee and her friends, who despite the day-to-day difficulties, manage to find adventures exploring local parks, off-limit utility rooms and abandoned housing tenements. They have enormous fun and occasionally cause trouble. Motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) keeps a watchful eye, while trying to chase up unpaid rent and carry out routine maintenance. There is no great narrative here, just a week in the life of Moonee and her friends and the adults who rent the motel rooms. And perhaps that’s its strength. It is neither preachy nor overly sentimental. The kids have fun, and the viewer can see the world through them – its goodness but also the harder side of life that the children themselves are only partially cognisant of.

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Most of the actors in this film have never acted on screen before, and some live on the actual estate. Willem Dafoe – who puts in an understated and beautiful performance – is the only seasoned actor in the film. Vinaite (Halley) fits in naturally, the children are wonderful, but the lead role by Prince (Moonee) is an absolute revelation. And the chemistry between her and Vinaite is marvellous. Several scenes are improvised and have a beautiful natural quality about them. The film ends with an emotional punch, where the happy-go-lucky, colour-filtered world of Moonee cannot escape the harshness of reality. Baker has delivered a sympathetic portrayal of the working-class poor and the resilience of childhood, without being either patronising or cliched. Loved this film.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 4.5/5

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“…a brewing appetite to confront all that is sick and twisted in this current world…”

Sean Baker is a young director with purpose. Having honed his craft on the indie circuit for the last decade and a half, The Florida Project is likely to catapult him into the mainstream gaze – I am assuming this recent offering will bring in deserved awards and acclaim. I remember watching Tangerine (his last film) a few years ago and being mesmerised by it. The idea of shooting a film completely on a smart phone (which he done with Tangerine) does not necessarily appeal to me, and it was not for this reason I was mesmerised, but it would be appropriate to remark that this did indeed elevate the film’s uniqueness. I mean the cinematography – set in and around the streets of Hollywood, California – looks impossibly beautiful at times, and yet the subject matter is bleak and depressing (this, even though it is listed as a ‘comedy-drama’). It sets its entire sights on a handful of characters who are either transgender sex workers, pimps or sleazy cab drivers, and let’s throw in some crystal meth use while we are at it! There is something terribly brilliant about Baker’s direction and his casting of (criminally) overlooked amateur actors, who bring astonishing humility and humour to their brutal but realistic milieu.

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Thus, The Florida Project can be seen as a companion piece to Tangerine. The subject matter here is less raw but by no means less powerful. Baker has clearly abandoned the smart phones (although, there are a few gem moments shot on some form of handheld camera) and incorporated the reverent acting abilities of Willem Dafoe, which and whom instils a higher level to the showcase. The Florida Project is set at a low-grade motel in Orlando and mostly follows the daily exploits of a six year old girl (Brooklynn Prince) who lives there with her young (possibly teenage) mother. At times, it also follows various interactions that her mother (Bria Vinaite) and the manager of the Motel (Defoe) have with each other as well as other various residents and visitors. The so-called ‘plot’ of the film is fluid and not exactly the beating heart of what makes it special, but there is a denouement involving the mother and daughter that marks proceedings greatly.

The action is off-the-cuff and sometimes improvised. Is Dafoe really laughing at Vinaite when he is counting her rent money? The muffled dialogue and the awkward laughter suggests that it is entirely possible. The scenes with the kid and her friends emanate a wonderful sense of non-staged realism too. Their mischievous behaviour starts out as trying but then becomes strangely endearing, and it never really falls on the side of annoying, despite the fact that this is exactly what they are to other guests at the motel, including Dafoe, who jadedly deals with their misdemeanours on a daily basis. ‘Mischievous’ and ‘misdemeanours’ may imply a level of playfulness to the whole thing but I think that would be disingenuous to Baker et al. The drama is much more serious than that. A scene where Dafoe deals with a paedophile who has rocked up where the children are playing is one of huge significance. For me, his character’s control in that situation is admirable but when he physically tackles and pushes him off the premises after he gets him to a safe distance away from the kids, I will admit that that admiration went into overdrive. Perhaps it is this anger and rage that is all over the place at the moment, I don’t know. I find that there’s a brewing appetite to confront all that is sick and twisted in this current world, and it clearly comes out in this scene.

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Anyway, The Florida Project is a fantastic film. As Robin discusses above, it also has a heightened sense of place – past and present. The motel is called ‘The Magic Castle’ and Disney World is literally just up the road. This is hard to fathom for the viewer, and is also hard to fathom for a honeymooning couple who arrive at the motel expecting top-notch accommodation for accessing the theme park in one particular scene. For the kids though the place is their Disney World. It is of little consequence to them that this is a dangerous place, full of abandoned buildings and alleyways of lurking evil. They make the most of it and seem to be doing alright despite the apparent social dysfunction all around them. It is a remarkable juxtaposition of the ‘picture-postcard’ paradise that Disney World has always offered the world. Prostitution, drugs and social decay is not what one expects to find a few hundred metres away but here it is, and one must deal with it. Baker’s vision is truly ingenious.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4.5/5

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