“The Florida Project” Movie Review


     As director Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” begins, we are introduced to two kids, who have the appearance of being about 6 years old, wandering about the grounds of a daily/weekly motel located somewhere along a road that ultimately leads to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  They move about with a sense of wide eyed adventure, looking for anything remotely resembling fun and doing so without any adult supervision whatsoever.  Just minutes away, parents hold their children tightly as they navigate through a sea of people while visiting The Happiest Place On Earth.  But here, in the world of seedy motels occupied mostly by low income underemployed families barely making a living, the kids run freely, not because their parents don't care, but because their way of life differs significantly from those who don't wonder each day where their next meal is coming from.  If the events and situations in “The Florida Project” are startling to you, then perhaps it may be time to examine just how firm your grasp on reality in America actually is.

     Baker doesn't construct his narrative utilizing the standard building blocks common in today’s features.  Instead he mimics the pace and tone of the characters in his film by giving the audience a random sampling of various, mostly insignificant events that occur over the summer time during the city’s tourist season.  In other words, Baker immerses us into their lives, allowing the audience to really feel what these characters are going through on a day to day basis.  The two kids we focus on are Moonee and Scooty, played to perfection by Brooklynn Prince and Christopher Rivera.  Together, they move about along a strip of colorful motels, gift shops, and tourist traps looking for anything that will keep them occupied.  This could mean something as simple as spitting on cars parked below a second story landing or waiting in front of an ice cream takeout spot and guilting customers into buying them one too. None of which comes as a surprise given the situation these kids are in.  They just don't know any different.

     With the kids in the story taking front and center, the adults take a role firmly in the background.  Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), appears to be in her early 20s and struggles to make her rent of the furnished studio her and her daughter live in each week.  Early scenes indicate she has had several jobs in the past, but her streetwise demeanor and lack of skills seems to have put off past employers, leaving her without the means to care for herself and Moonee.  In order to survive, she sometimes sends Moonee to the diner Scooty’s mom works at where she sends back free food, while other times they walk to one of the higher end hotels to sell perfume to their more wealthy patrons.  Together, they certainly share a traditional mother and daughter bond, but Halley is often forced to resort to other means in order to pay the rent, often leaving Moonee to fend for herself.  

     Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the motel’s manager, and sees it as his function to sort of get to know the tenants and keep them happy and in line with the establishment’s policies.  He’s extremely well acquainted with Moonee and the other kids in the motel who aimlessly meander the landings and grounds getting into various assortments of mischief.  And he’s equally as acquainted with Halley since she is late paying her rent nearly every week, in addition to several other issues with her and Moonee’s behavior.  Somehow, he remains level headed and exhibits astounding patience throughout, living a tedious life of staring at surveillance camera screens, completing repair jobs around the property, and dealing with unruly guests while owning the responsibility for what goes on day and night.  Essentially, he is the moral center in the story, with everyone around him operating at various levels below his standard.  It’s Dafoe like I have never seen him before, expertly becoming a believable personality amongst the often chaotic nature of a blighted and unsavory strip of motels operating in the shadow of Disney.  His performance should be remembered when awards season kicks into high gear.

     One could view “The Florida Project” and come away thinking the storyline is jagged and without purpose, of which they would be correct.  Baker wants us to live next door to his characters and accept what they give us whether we think it’s important or not.  How else could he properly communicate the fact that these people are living a daily struggle without having us experience the highs, the lows, and everything in between.  The film also makes a strong argument against the broad strokes of racial divide, allowing us to observe the true difference between people in our country has much more to do with class and economic status than it does race. Certainly, there are no guarantees a child will succeed in life solely because he or she comes from a family with a solid financial situation, but at least those kids have a chance.  Kids like Moonee have virtually no likelihood to succeed and are often left behind with little or no opportunities moving forward.  It’s that very reason I will always scoff at a child who by nature is not thankful for the things they are fortunate enough to have.

     Whether we want to admit it or not, “The Florida Project” is a true American film.  The realities of life these characters grapple with each day are not the kind of feel good stories that often comprise the average Hollywood entry, but are nonetheless engaging and thought provoking, particularly as the story wraps with a heartbreaking conclusion.  The backdrop is illuminating and colorful, as if to hide the pain found deep within.  These are children who are thrilled when they receive a slice of week old bread with grape jam slathered on it, all the while their much more fortunate peers are strolling through the Magic Kingdom just minutes down the road, pouting because their parents didn't buy them everything they wanted.  The contrast here may be subtle since Disney World barely registers in the background, and yet it somehow manages to remain directly in your face.  Baker’s film has a similar feel in the stark realization that made last year’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight” and 2014 Best Picture nominee “Boyhood" so incredibly compelling, but does so on a completely different canvas, allowing the film to give its own unique perspective on growing up in America.  The result; however, captures a near identical impact and makes “The Florida Project” one of the best films of 2017. GRADE: A