Film Review: The Florida Project (2017)

Release Date: May 22nd, 2017 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Music by: Lorne Balfe
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones

Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, Cinereach, June Pictures, A24, 115 Minutes

Review:

“Excuse me. Could you give us some change, please? The doctor said we have asthma and we have to eat ice cream right away. ” – Moonee

The Florida Project was a motion picture that I wanted to see since I first saw a trailer several months back, around the time it was playing at Cannes. Growing up in Florida, it was something that definitely felt relatable. Plus, Willem Dafoe’s performance was being heralded as his best ever. Considering Dafoe’s long list of amazing films, that’s a pretty bold statement.

To put it as bluntly as possible, this is the best film that I have seen so far in 2017. From my standpoint, I have more of an invested interest in it, as it correlates with not only taking place where I grew up but also with some personal stuff in my own life.

I’ve grown up around people like this. I have people like this in my family. Hell, the hotel where these people live is like every hotel I bought and did drugs in when I was in my teens and twenties. I’ve known girls like Halley. I’ve dated girls like Halley. I actually have a cousin who is similar to her, just switch out the prostitution part for drugs. Her son now lives with his grandmother, as my cousin is in and out of jail, rehab and back and forth between drugs and sobriety. But every step of the way, I have seen these scenarios pan out, time and time again.

If a film can be too real, this is it. Sean Baker wrote and directed a masterpiece in regards to its subject matter. This feels authentic and seeing everything pan out the way that it does, mostly from a child’s point-of-view, is heartbreaking. The fact that a lot of what you see is spontaneous and often times off script, gives The Florida Project a documentary feel, especially in regards to the kids and their banter.

I’ll get to Dafoe’s performance in a minute but the real show stealer here is the six year-old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, who most assuredly deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance here. I have not seen a child resonate on screen like Prince in a very long time. She delivers her lines like a veteran and has a presence that transcends the 35mm celluloid that she was captured on. Her final moments are like an emotional punch to the gut. She is the glue that holds everything else in this picture together, as well as the heart and soul of the story.

Willem Dafoe was perfect as Bobby, the manager of the hotel that most of the characters live in. Dafoe is perfect in everything though but here, he truly represents us, the audience. He is the compassionate eyes and ears, a good person that has to seemingly carry the weight of the world on his shoulders but puts himself out in front because his heart aches for these characters, specifically Halley and Moonee. He’s an everyday blue collar guy that can’t help himself from trying to put a Band-aid on the world where he can. Dafoe doesn’t even have to say much because we know that he’s thinking what we are thinking and he’s able to convey it through his subtle facial expressions and body language. He’s the underappreciated hero of the film but has to deal with the weight that he can’t save these people at the end of the day.

Bria Vinaite has never acted before this. She really was Halley, though. Everything about her performance felt completely genuine. She constantly made poor decisions but you couldn’t not feel for her. Like Bobby, you wanted to help lift her up and show her that there is a better way to live. But helplessness and hopelessness are incredibly hard things to overcome. And the situation in which these people find themselves in, is not an easy one. When you’re pushed against a wall, it’s hard not to slip or to do bad things to make a quick buck. For Halley, the gravity of her situation prevented her from seeing the bigger picture. Vinaite took what could have easily become an unlikable and despicable character and gave her a real sense of humanity and an energetic spirit. After all, she’s just an incredibly young girl, lost in the world and borderline homeless, trying to raise a daughter.

The Florida Project is also impeccably shot. To me, it feels like a beautiful homage to the state I grew up in and have lived in my entire life. It highlights a lot of the bizarre places, shops and other things that you will find around Disney World. It really shows everything that is just outside of the Magic Kingdom, in the real world, that most people outside of Florida don’t even know about. It’s amazing to me how this film captures the darker side of things that are hiding in plain sight, obscured by the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle.

In a certain regard, the picture parallels how Sean Baker used Hollywood in his 2015 film Tangerine. The environment really becomes a character in the film and its uniqueness gives it an otherworldly fantastical feel that sort of offsets the harsh realism of what’s really happening to Baker’s characters. This isn’t an easy film to sit through, emotionally speaking, but the film’s atmosphere and its young characters give you a sense of optimism and joy.

Sean Baker really knows how to write and film people. This film is truly a treasure and showcases this talented director’s skill and his great sense and understanding of humanity. I haven’t seen a new film this good in quite awhile. I hope that when award season rolls around, this is getting some serious buzz.

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