Directed by: Sean Baker
Premise: A single mother and her six year old daughter live in a pay-by-the-week motel located in Orlando, Florida. The daughter spends her days roaming the local grounds and getting into mischief while her mother attempts to make ends meet.
What Works: The Florida Project is a slice-of-life piece of filmmaking. It isn’t a pseudo-documentary but the cinematography and the acting have a natural style that sometimes appears that way. The point of a movie like this is to immerse the audience in the lives of these people and The Florida Project does that. The film has an impressive feeling of authenticity. It takes place in a cheap Florida motel among people treading just above homelessness while the tourist trade of Orlando—and in particular Walt Disney World—looms in the background. The Florida Project is not a tale of plucky and impoverished people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. The movie is smarter and more empathetic than that. Instead, The Florida Project is a nuanced portrait of people doing what they can to survive and sometimes making bad choices in the process. The film provides an honest and sometimes brutal assessment of its characters, especially Halley, played by Bria Vinaite. This mother of a six year old girl is very much a kid herself. She’s negligent and has no plans to get herself out of her financial rut. The movie captures all of Halley’s failures as a mother and it shows those failures existing alongside the love she has for her daughter. As a result, the filmmakers provide a complex portrait of this woman. The adult cast also includes Willem Dafoe as the motel manager and he is also a complex character. Dafoe has usually been cast as villains or otherwise tough characters but he plays a much more sensitive role in The Florida Project. Dafoe’s character is beleaguered by the day-to-day responsibilities of running the motel as well as the demands of his eccentric tenants and he constantly negotiates the managerial lines. The Florida Project is filmed almost entirely from the point of view of the child characters and the movie is primarily the tale of six year old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, and her friends who live in the motel. The filmmakers get some extraordinary performances out of the child actors, especially Prince, and the movie captures the messiness and exploratory adventure of childhood in a way that few films have. There is also a lot of humor in The Florida Project, much of it driven by the kids, and the comedy offsets the sense of desperation that adult viewers will probably experience while watching the movie. The Florida Project’s portrait of poverty existing in the shadow of one of America’s great tourist destinations has undeniable political implications. To their credit, the filmmakers resist the urge to spell it out and instead let the images and actions speak for themselves.
What Doesn’t: The Florida Project runs a little too long. A movie of this sort is more driven by theme and character than by plot and that necessitates a looser organization. However, it is clear pretty quickly what kind of a mother Halley is and what forces are at work in her daughter’s life. The film repeats some of its scenarios a bit more than is necessary. The point seems to be the aimless monotony of their existence but the energy of the movie dips in places as it reiterates the same scenarios over and over again. The Florida Project does have a plot but it isn’t enunciated very clearly due to the style of the film. That’s not a fault of The Florida Project but viewers who didn’t “get” movies like Boyhood or American Honey probably aren’t going to respond to this film either.
Bottom Line: The Florida Project is a smart, revelatory, and heartbreaking piece of work. It’s a nuanced portrait of people who aren’t typically found in mainstream movies, and especially not with this quality of empathy. It’s also a terrifically made piece of recession cinema.
Episode: #673 (November 5, 2017)