By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Just outside of Walt Disney World, “The Most Magical Place On Earth,” in Kissimmee, Florida exists a poor and working class community where, for these people, this magical theme park neighbor might as well be on the other side of the planet. Within this community, people work hard in menial jobs, pull scams, sell drugs, or even sell their bodies to survive. Sean Baker, the acclaimed writer/director of Tangerine, focuses his story on a group of characters based on this exact kind of people who face these struggles, exercise poor judgment and make bad decisions not only for themselves, but also for their children. With a painfully realistic approach mixed with some of the most charming and lovable performances by children, The Florida Project makes for a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing indie feature film.
During the summertime, a six-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) spends her days fighting boredom with her neighbor friends by wandering around the outside of the cheap “Magic Castle Motel” where she and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) have probably stayed too long. Bright, but quite mischievous, Moonee and her playmates Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) often get themselves into trouble or disrupt the other guests and staff of the hotel. Because Halley seems to be in her own world of getting high, coming up with scams, or scoring money for the two of them to survive, Moonee and the other children run and play with minimal supervision, save for the watchful eyes of motel owner and manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who already has enough on his plate maintaining his struggling business.
Much like his previous films, Take Out, Starlet, and Tangerine, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project does a wonderful job taking audiences through the lives of characters based on real people whose day-to day activities are anything, but glamorous. With his latest movie, Baker, who co-writes with Chris Bergoch, focuses mostly on the life of a child who must become wise beyond her years to enjoy her childhood, but also gets into trouble regularly because she is a child. This makes for an experience that feels like a roller coaster of emotions. Audiences will laugh and smile at the silly things the children say, but they will also cringe at some of the unnerving things they do to keep themselves occupied. And though most of the focus remains with the children, Baker also includes some of the more disturbing things that Moonie’s mother Halley does to make money and how her inattentitiveness makes things worse.
Even though the setting of the film is depicted as either an impoverished or working class area, Baker’s use of bright colors offers a beautiful juxtaposition to the decay that is actually taking place in the community. I also applaud Baker’s even more subtle juxtaposition of the neighboring Walt Disney World being such a “magical place” offering people hours of fun and happiness, when the poor and sick are suffering so near. It is a well achieved visual and literary analogy that reflects other similar comparisons between the “haves” and “have-nots” and even the differences on both sides of the border between the US and Mexico. For every happy place in the world, there is a sad one not far away.
In addition to superb writing and direction, the movie would not have completely succeeded without the right performances from the cast and these relatively unknown talents pull this off wonderfully. First off, Bria Vinaite brings the perfect ghetto attitude to her portrayal of Halley. Even though her character might be in the wrong in some situations, this talented actress puts her heart and passion into fighting Halley’s battles. It is a performance that is both appropriately irritating and poignant. She shares a beautiful chemistry with Brooklyn Prince who is absolutely phenomenal as Moonee. The six-year-old wunderkind gives a performance that comes across mostly as improvised, but the kind of improvisation that can take adult actors years to perfect. The other child actors, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera, are also naturals in front of the camera. They too work well with Brooklyn Prince in their scenes together.
I must also praise Mela Murder who stars as Halley’s best friend, and mother to Scooty, Ashley. The film also features appearances by Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby’s son Jack, and Macon Blair who appears in a rather amusing scene. It would be absolutely wonderful to see actresses Bria Vinaite and Brooklyn Prince get some attention during awards season, but the safer bet would be veteran actor Willem Dafoe who delivers a superb and lovely performance as motel owner/manager and father figure Bobby. For an actor known for playing unhinged villains or more idiosyncratic characters, Dafoe offers a much more endearing and charismatic turn in this film. The character of Bobby does his best to restore and maintain his motel, but he cannot prevent every ounce of ugliness that threatens to consume what he works so hard to eliminate. It might not be his most challenging role ever, but it is one that deserves high praise and attention from the awards organizations.
The same case could be made for this truly remarkable independent film by Sean Baker. Baker, who was nominated for the John Cassavetes award in 2009 at the Independent Spirit Awards for his film Take Out, is definitely a cinematic son of the independent filmmaker for which the award is named. His films are almost as real as any documentary feature movies tackling similar subjects. He strives to capture the most natural performances by his cast members and certainly has no wishes to portray them glamorously or in ridiculously contrived situations. His movies are based on those struggling to thrive, survive and be free despite the constraints and limitations imposed on them by either themselves or the outside world. This is real independent cinema at its finest.