The Florida Project review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
It’s hard to articulate Sean Baker’s excellence with portraying kids as kids in The Florida Project. In the same way that he assembled his iPhone-shot street drama Tangerine, following prostitutes and police on one full day, he constructs a microcosm of a community with real kids with playfulness and real parents with tough lives. The adults are fantastic, but it’s the kids who steal the show. Most child actors tend to come with an awkwardness or unease for stating lines, but Baker manages to direct these kids so well with innocence, trouble, and confliction that you do wonder how much of their performance was Baker’s direction and how much of it was improv.
Just outside of Disney World exists a community of needy families, living out of motels and struggling to pay for everything. It’s summer break, and the kids try to fight off boredom with any activity they can. Sometimes it’s having a belching contest under the stairs, sometimes it’s spitting on a car, and sometimes it’s spying on the motel’s one resident that sunbathes nude at the pool. 6-year-old Moone (Brooklynn Prince) seems to know the most about the area as she imparts her fun-seeking onto the new kid in town, Jancey. Such activities outside the motel area include convincing tourists to buy them ice cream and ruining the abandoned condos. They get into trouble, but no more than most kids would in such a situation. From the perspective of parents, these kids act remarkably believable with stammering, giggling, and physical mannerisms.
The adults occupying the motel are not as chipper about their trashy lives. Moone’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a short-fused woman that lives through stealing, huckstering tourists, and prostitution, spitting on the employment agency that can’t offer her much. She only seems to be content when around her daughter, dressing her up and shooting selfies. Her patience for others is so short that she’s more likely to fly off the handle than calmly question why her friend stops letting her have a free lunch from her day job. She’s a ticking time bomb of a woman destined for prison, and it’s heartbreaking to know what awaits little Moone by the end of the picture.
Trying to hold down the fort is the motel manager Bobby Hicks, played by Willem Dafoe in what is arguably the most exceptional role of his career. He tries to cut the residents a break but also tries to remain firm with making sure rent comes in on time and that they stay out of trouble. Of the few men in the motel, he has such a big heart for the kids that it doesn’t seem so bad that he takes care of them more than the parents. Case in point, Bobby, spots an old pedophile approaching the kids playing alone at the picnic tables. He doesn’t just usher this creep off the property; he humors the excuse that the man only came to the motel for soda, letting him purchase his drink before Bobby smacks it out of his hand and shouts him off the premises. No danger of him coming back.
A lot of little details weave the world of The Florida Project so well to give a portrait more of childhood than adult squalor. Indoors, the kids indulge in pizza and macaroni and cheese, watching television that seems to perpetually be commercials for cheap products. Moone doesn’t know about her mom’s prostitution visits, only hearing the radio while she takes a bath in the other room. There are simpler and sweeter moments as when Moone and Jancey share jelly sandwiches in the more nature-like areas around the motel. And there are also moments that are tragic more from the adult perspective, as when one of the kids has to leave the motel and must give all his toys to his friends as they can’t fit in the car. To his friends, it means free toys, thinking nothing of never seeing that person again. It won’t hit Moone until much later.
Some will argue that the film doesn’t find its proper ending, cutting off at a point that may not seem to have any concrete resolution. Personally, it ends at just the right spot for the emotional boiling point the film reaches in what is easily the most heartbreaking scene of 2017. Maybe this is coming from my perspective as a parent but there always felt like a rumbling of a tragedy was masked under every scene, even in the sweetest of moments where the children are acting like real children. There really is no other movie like it, even for fitting the motif of a Sean Baker film. It’s easily one of the best movies of 2017 if nothing else then for the perfectly charming and complex Dafoe.