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Review: The Florida Project

October 13, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Sean Baker, who broke onto the scene in a really memorable way with the iPhone-shot TangerineThe Florida Project is a highly empathetic and often breathtaking cinematic work, that might just go down as the best movie of the year.

The film follows Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in The Magic Castle, a rundown Orlando motel right in the shadow of Disney World.  The motel is decrepit, and largely ignored by the tourists who bring the only real revenue to their small part of the world, as the endlessly patient manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) tries to hold it all together.

But it provides a gigantic backyard for Moonee to mess around in, generally raising hell with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and their newfound playmate Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives in the neighbouring motel.  The kids run around being kids, exploring their surroundings, getting into mischief and sharing ice cream cones bought with coins from strangers, but they are also navigating a harsh and unforgiving world.  As her mother struggles to find new ways to pay the rent, Moonee’s childhood is threatened to be torn apart.

Sean Baker directs with a keen eye for capturing little character moments, and also shows a strong sense of lyrical, bittersweet storytelling.  Just like he did in Tangerine, which was also mostly carried by non-actors, the filmmaker once again proves that he has a genuine gift for coaxing engaging and naturalistic performances out of even the most inexperienced members of his cast.  Newcomer Brooklynn Prince carries the film with a breakout performance, proving herself to be an absolute natural onscreen, with the camera smoothly following her and taking her lead.  It ranks as one of the best performances by a child actor ever put onscreen.

Bria Vinaite also gives a tour de force performance as her mother, commanding the screen in a brash and emotionally demanding role.  I didn’t realize that this was her first acting role before seeing the film, with the director having randomly found her on Instagram, which just made me all the more impressed by her work.  The most veteran member the cast, Willem Dafoe delivers a quietly moving performance as the manager caught in the middle of these people’s lives, always watching over them from his office, and providing the closest thing to a stern but kind paternal figure that these kids seem to have.  It’s one of his best performances, and a scene where he escorts a creeper off the property is masterfully played, with anger simmering beneath the surface.

Alexis Zabe’s cinematography captures the humid, sun-kissed look of Florida, while allowing colours like the purple paint of the motel to really pop.  With many sequences framed from low angles to maintain a child’s eye view, the camerawork impresses both in the spontaneous handheld moments and the more planned shots, like a stunning pan across the length of the motel that follows the kids as they run along the balcony.  The daytime scenes in the film were also shot on 35mm film, which gives them a certain softness and presents a huge departure from the up to the minute digital feel of Tangerine, without losing any of the immediacy and vibrancy that film gained from being shot on a phone.

Described as “pop vérité” by the filmmaker himself, The Florida Project often recalls the work of the Dardenne Brothers in its observational style.  The film seems to be as much influenced by French New Wave classics like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows as it is by Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, a pair of works that also focused on kids in troubled situations.  The characters here are real people just struggling to get by, and the film tackles issues of extreme poverty head on, showing areas and individuals who are rarely seen onscreen and doing so with a great deal of both compassion, honesty and most of all respect.

The film beautifully balances the joyous, carefree nature of being a child with the heartbreak and pain of living in poverty.  It shows the fringes that exist in the shadow of Disney’s “happiest place on earth,” a world of struggle and wasted opportunity where being a child is the only reprieve you can get from the cruelties of the world, and even that sanctity is threatened.  This juxtaposition between the joy offered by Disney World, a place that exists in fantasy, and the pain of the real world, manifested in the playful nature of being a kid and the responsibilities and hardships that come with being an adult, is something that the film handles brilliantly.

The film plays with a wonderful childlike energy, by turns delightful and devastating, a balance that The Florida Project masterfully pulls off without ever once feelling manipulative.  It’s too genuine and pure for that.  This all leads to the powerful climactic moments, culminating in the best final minute of any film this year.  I still get choked up just thinking about it.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 14, 2017 2:33 pm

    Just wow. It seems like this is definitely the movie to watch. Nice review.


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