The Florida Project Review

We normally associate Orlando, Florida with the vibrant commercialism and magic of Walt Disney World and the Universal Studios theme parks, but in the shadow of Cinderella’s castle lie motels like the Magic Castle, where indie filmmaker Sean Baker invites us to journey in “The Florida Project.”

This dive into the unglamorous, lower-class side of a place home to big dreams and fantasies echoes the spirit of Baker’s previous feature, “Tangerine,” also co-written with Chris Bergoch, which followed black transgender hookers in Hollywood. Both films go light on plot with Baker opting for a verite style to convey authenticity. In “The Flordia Project” in particular, the empathy factor multiplies given the focus on 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who has created her own magic amidst her life’s harsh realities.

Baker’s style necessitates actors with strong improvisational skills, and somehow he nurtures those abilities in Prince and her fellow child actors, Christopher Rivera (as Scooty), Aiden Malike (as Dicky) and Valier Cotto (as Jancey). This motel band of little rascals give the most honest portrayal of children I can recall on screen. Normally, kids in movies show uncharacteristic maturity or are unusually precocious. Moonee has a smart mouth, but her motives feel genuine to her being a child, not in service of the script.

In addition to following Moonee and her friends, the film gives a window into her life with her young mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a complicated relationship that provides a lot of the film’s moral ambiguity. Halley willfully engages in immoral and illegal behaviors in order to pay her weekly “rent” to the motel, does not supervise Moonee most of the day and fights ferociously against authority to protect her status quo and give her and Moonee the life she feels they deserve. Her behavior gives the impression that at some point Baker will drop the moral hammer, but it doesn’t quite happen the way we think. Baker and Bergoch show almost a disdain for melodrama in the way their story unfolds.

Also critical to their story is motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Initially he occupies the role of lovable side character – the grumpy middle-aged man keeping the order, who won’t stand for the kids’ hijinks or Halley’s violation of motel policy. But as the lens tightens on the reality of the motel’s circumstances, we see Bobby for so much more than that. Dafoe articulates all this nuance while staying committed to playing a quirky, character role. Few characters are easier to love.

The world of this seedy knock-off Disney strip of Orlando has a deeply immersive quality, one that Baker carefully constructs through consistency in camera angles and shot techniques. He coaxes the magic hiding in these little crevices to come out on screen and complement the harsh contextual realities of the characters and their situations. This balance allows us to consider how these characters and people whose lives resemble them actually feel day to day, rather than to just fixate on everything that’s wrong and bad about it. We know that no one should have to grow up like Moonee, but we can also relate to having created our own happiness and comfort within tough circumstances and consider how it feels lose that.

“The Florida Project” could have been written and told with more dramatic peaks and valleys and a concrete sense of movement and structure. This version would have also been a remarkable film drawing tons of awards attention. Yet there’s a beauty in the way Baker works so diligently to give audiences the sense that he was hands off in this process, that the story and characters have a life of their own and he was just there to show it to us. He does not ask us to think one way or another about any of it, rather to make sure we know that stories like this are in fact real and right under our nose.


4.5/5 Stars


The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite

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