Note: The author of this review attended a special screening of The Florida Project at the Arclight Cinemas in Los Angeles, followed by a Q&A with writer/ director Sean Baker, writer/producer Chris Bergoch, and cinematographer Alexis Zabe (moderated by LA Times’ Glenn Whip). Any quotations from this review come from that Q&A.
Following the critical acclaim of his 2015 film Tangerine, writer and director Sean Baker tackles another seldom-portrayed subject matter in his newest film, The Florida Project. From the script to the set, the film is infused with the smart, subtle choices Baker and the rest of his team.
The Florida Project follows the charming, foul-mouthed Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her imprudent, often reckless mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) as they live day-to-day out of a motel in Orlando, Florida. Set on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, the story juxtaposes the park’s magical hopefulness with the decidedly unmagical lives of those living in its depressed backdrop.
The film is vibrant from the opening credits, in both energy and design. The audience is introduced immediately to Moonee and her similarly impetuous friends, screaming vulgarities at an innocent grandmother. Moonee’s mother, Halley, feigns disappointment and regret when confronted with this transgression, and it becomes clear that this is not a conventional mother-daughter relationship.
While Moonee and Halley as characters may not make the most dynamic duo, the performances from Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite bring an unusual charm to the pair; their relationship on screen is mostly endearing enough to distract from their objectively despondent situation–an impressive feat for the pair of newcomers, to be sure.
If there is Brooklynn Prince Oscar buzz, it will be warranted. It doesn’t quite make sense to say that she ‘steals the show’ because she is the protagonist, but you get the sense that she would have stolen it even if she wasn’t. She carries this weighty film with aplomb, delivering scripted lines like a seasoned actor and improvising other lines like many seasoned actors can’t. As Baker remarked, “She was born to do this.”
The integration of tremendous improv into an already incredibly written script produced dialogue that doesn’t feel real so much as it is real. Baker was committed to his young actors “having the time of their lives” on set. Baker’s style in this respect has created an authenticity that serves as the cornerstone of the entire picture.
It is a movie meant to be seen through the eyes of a child. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe spoke about some of the photographic decisions that helped build this world: “We were trying to remember what the world was like when we were six years old…The colors are brighter, the sense are more alive…You concentrate on the beauty of things.” Zabe also credited Production Designer Stephonik Youth in bringing the child’s perspective to the screen, and realizing the importance of walking a line between ‘making it real, and keeping it a notch above reality’ to represent that perspective.
The sternly warm (or warmly stern?) motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is perfectly cast. Throughout the movie, Bobby is confronted, tangentially or directly, with every conflict that faces Halley and Moonee. He meets these confrontations with a variety of responses–humor, incredulity, stubbornness, rage–but always with real sympathy. Dafoe’s performance makes it easy for the audience to feel that sympathy with him, even if, at times, the characters don’t deserve it.
A movie about the plight of a directionless low-income family in Orlando is, on paper, highly-susceptible to melodrama. Despite the litany of scenes and events that could justify it, the movie avoids the overly-emotional and instead chooses to ebb and flow its tension, remaining effectively stingy with its catharsis.
In that sense, the movie is definitely a slow burn; it focuses more on establishing and exploring the world in which the characters live, then allowing that world to become a character itself. To fully appreciate this movie, it requires a patience that few movies require in today’s landscape. It is, however, that specificity of pace, of tone, and of narrative that make The Florida Project beautiful.
If you’re in the Boston area, The Florida Project is currently showing at the Boston Common, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Kendall Square Cinema. Check it out!