Title: The Florida Project
MPAA: Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.
Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
Synopsis: Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious mother, all while living in a budget motel in the shadows of Disney World.
Looking back almost a decade ago, the 2008 Financial Crisis was a huge game changer for our country. The prices to buy homes sky-rocketed and interest rates increased to ridiculous percentages. In return, the demand for homes declined dramatically, and more and more Americans became homeless. Over the past decade, the prices of rent have increased, while the average incomes for the lower and middle class have declined. I bring this up, because what we see in Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project is the aftermath of our economy’s decline. Baker shows us a collection of people we are not familiar with watching on the big screen. Instead of the wealthy, or even the average middle class Americans, we are watching the least fortunate people, the lower class, the people living on the margin everyday.
The film takes place at a budget motel in Orlando, Florida, called The Magic Castle. A real life motel in Orlando of the same name. It’s pink-coated building structure and luxurious purple-colored doors manipulate the eye into thinking it is a wonderland on first glance, but as we discover further into the film, it’s really just a dump hole where most people go not necessarily to stay shortly while visiting Disney World, but more to survive for as long as they can because they can’t afford their own place to live. The whole film is from the perspective of children, and the main character is a little girl named Moonee played by the lively and charismatic breakout star Brooklynn Prince. The children bring humor and joy to a film that frankly could have been extremely heavy and depressing, based on the subject matter. Baker has said on multiple occasions that the film was heavily inspired by The Little Rascals, a show he loved as kid and still does to this day. He actually thanks producers and directors of The Little Rascals TV series of the 50s, and its star George “Spanky” McFarland in the end credits of the film. Brooklynn Prince and the other children in this film give such authentic performances that they feel so real. This film really details some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen, because it’s like they aren’t even acting at all. They are just being themselves. And Prince pulls off an emotional vulnerability that is very rare for an actor/actress of such a young age.
Sean Baker is becoming one of the great directors of our time. Not only does he make very well made films, but he films them in such unique ways, going out of his way to make his films visually original, unlike anything in today’s Hollywood. In his last film Tangerine, he was famous for shooting the entire film on an IPhone, and using mostly untrained actors. In this film, he uses a combination of all sorts of actors. Unknowns with very little acting experience (Brooklyn Prince), people who have never acted before in their lives (Bria Vinaite, who plays the mother of Moonee) and acting veterans like Willem Dafoe. The story of how Baker cast Vinaite is fascinating. He was told by his producers he should go with a well-known A-list actress to play the mother of Moonee, to help with promoting the film and will allow the movie do better in the box office, but Baker went an entire different route. Deciding to go with a fresh, new face, Baker took a huge gamble and ended up finding his lead actress on Instagram. An un-trained actress who has the look and emotional baggage to play a character as disruptive and polarizing as she was, but had never acted before in her life. It was a huge gamble, but it payed off big time. A week after watching this, that character is still stuck in my mind, and it just wouldn’t have worked as well with someone like Jennifer Lawrence for example. Because in this case, I did not see an actress, and instead saw a real person.
In a lot of ways, The Florida Project is shot like a documentary. As I mentioned before, Baker chose to shoot the entire film on location at a real life motel. In an interview, Dafoe, who plays the hotel manager, explained how he actually learned how to work the job and was able to work on site while filming. When asked if he had a trailer, he said “No, I just stayed in one of the motel rooms.” This is how serious and method the actors took to their parts. Dafoe also explains how he grew very close with the people who lived at the motel and understood their struggles and hardships. Dafoe plays a character that is against type to what he is probably accustomed to playing. Dafoe can play scumbags and evil villains better than most people in Hollywood, but Baker casts him in a role that is one of the most empathetic and caring characters in film of the entire year. And the master actor he is, Dafoe pulls it off with ease. His earnest empathy mix-matched with his subtle somberness should earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and possibly a win.
The Florida Project also is very unique in its story structure. Its “more character, less plot” approach allows this film to feel more authentic and does not even have a basic three-act story structure. There are moments throughout the film that drive the story forwards, but you never know when they will come. This film is more concerned about capturing a collection of individual moments rather than having each scene connect to one another. I think it is one of the best films about real life I’ve ever seen. It is so honest and brutal in its subject matter, but speaks in a way that most Hollywood films won’t even dare to. I depicted this on first glance as a film about the disadvantages of growing up in a lower class environment, but others can depict this about empathy and how we do and don’t help each other. I don’t know if I would label this as a straight up practical, documentary style film, but more of “magic realism.” Baker manages to create his own unique world that parallels the imagination and wonder that goes on in the mind of a child. Children have a way of looking at the world in such positive and wonderful ways, and Baker manages to capture this in a setting that is very dark. Only the power of filmmaking can pull off something like this.
Finally, I want to point out how visually stunning this film is. Probably the best shot film I’ve seen since Blade Runner 2049. What makes The Florida Project even more impressive is that it has a very low-budget and was entirely shot on film, with no CGI. Baker captures the beauty of this particular low-class area of Orlando. It’s the way this film looks visually that overlaps the dismal nature of the film and makes it more pleasurable to watch. Baker does a brilliant job of manipulating the viewer’s eyes and ears to what we are really witnessing. In the beginning of the film, we hear the song “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang. Most people would assume that this will be a joyful coming of age tale, butThe Florida Project is far from that. The rich and vibrant color palette serves as a perfect backdrop for the characters, and symbolizes the whimsical nature of the children. There are a lot of times in this film where we don’t know if we should laugh or cringe at what the children are doing. We see them do terrible things like cuss and spit on strangers cars, and it is funny at first, but when you think about it more it is actually very sad.
The Florida Project is a unique portrait of lower class America that features characters that are very rarely seen in films today, and is visually stunning with incredible cinematography. What could have been a very depressing film about the lower class, turned out to be something so much more. It’s very difficult and exhausting at times, but also very heartwarming and funny. There are a lot of great comedic, improvisational scenes and happy accidents (the helicopter) that ended up making it in the film. With Sean Baker at the helm (who is becoming a new auteur of our time), we are witnessed to one of the most real and a true wakeup calls of how rough our economy has gotten since the Financial Crisis of 2008. This is a very dense film that is full of symbolism and themes. The look of the film can be depicted as a portrait of children growing in poor environments, but how they are oblivious to the struggle until they are much older. It also can represent how the parents, especially the mother of Moonee, never learned how to grow up and in their heads are still living in a play land just like when they were kids. When adults are at Disney World, one of the great joys and pleasures is the fact that it gives them an excuse to act like a kid again for a couple of hours. The different between Disney World and The Magic Castle motel in The Florida Project is that the adults living in the motel act like children 24/7. Baker gives us the opportunity to learn more about these type of people in our country and warns us that if children grow up in a toxic environment like this, then they will behave childish their entire lives, just like their parents.
My grade for this film is: