“The Florida Project” (2017)

Drama

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Written by: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

Directed by:  Sean Baker

Featuring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, and Caleb Landry Jones

Moonee: [to tourist at ice-cream stand] Excuse me. Could you give us some change, please? The doctor said we have asthma and we have to eat ice-cream right away.

A few times a year there are low budget films that break through becoming must see events normally through their exposure on the festival circuits, then becoming award favorites through critics groups as well as industry organizations. This new film from Sean Baker, “The Florida Project” (2017), is one of those. Whilst this movie is not as adlibbed or fly on the wall as it may come across, it follows in a long tradition of such films a Larry Clarks “Kids” (1995), although nowhere near as hard hitting or eye opening, mainly due to its subject matter as well as its point of view, that being very young  children that drive the narrative.

Writer/director Sean Baker follows up his award winning shot on an iPhone “Tangerine” (2015) with this movie that follows young children who are living in a motel, their adventures are documented here, much like an updated film version of Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer’, mixed with a new generation that the author could not have imagined. This tale illustrates that no matter the age we live in, ‘kids will kids’ is an adage without a time period. The other timeless conceit is that mothers always can see through their children no matter what they have done, that is truth will out. Baker has created a real plot with twists that might shock some, showing how families are living in a post crisis, ante Trump world where survival of the fittest is not restricted to the wild.

“The Florida Project” is set during the summer, six-year-old Moonee lives with her young mother Halley in the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida. She spends most of her day unsupervised with her motel-resident friends Scooty and Dicky, engaging in mischief at other motels, mooching from tourists at nearby businesses, and other misbehavior. They invite Jancey, a new child living at the Futureland motel next-door, to hang out with them. Following an incident, Dicky’s father restricts him from hanging out with them, and the family eventually relocates to New Orleans, which upsets the group.

Halley is unemployable and engages in various petty schemes to make ends meet, such as hawking perfume to tourists in the parking lots of hotels, and asking Scooty’s mother Ashley to steal food for them from the diner where she works; a local church also brings foodstuffs for the many impoverished motel residents. Motel manager Bobby reluctantly but chronically plays the role of parent to both Halley and Moonee, and other residents, as part of his responsibility to manage the facility.

Apart from the characters and their own struggles that are portrayed in the film, the location of the movie is of utmost importance, as it directly shows the massive gap between the haves and the have not’s. It also illustrates the dichotomy between a place that is so full of wealth as well as joy that the difference in the location of this movie could not be further apart. The fact the location of the Magic Castle is so close to Disneyworld is no mistake or accident as it underlines the difficulty that Halley has as a young single mother attempting to just survive with her daughter, paying for the basics such as shelter and food. One has to wonder what the point of living in the self-proclaimed greatest democracy on Earth, or the best country in the world is if you have people living like they are in this movie. The mere fact that some government agencies get involved with fat cops that are clueless to what is actually going on just underlines the importance of a movie like this in this decade.

Baker has seemingly effortlessly (which of course is not true) created one of the best social commentaries of recent times along with Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” (2016), which had similar themes as well as using very similar aspects of film-making. They are both using either non-professional main actors as well as a cinéma vérité approach to their method of filmmaking and real locations making use of external locales which only add to the authenticity of what both movies are trying to get across to their audiences. This is a snapshot of life in parts of the US that are devoid of a social safety net that actually look after children as well as parents when their lives are genuinely off the rails – even if they do not realize it, which is what we are witnessing with Halley and Moonee who do not have a realization as to what kind of trouble they are in. No matter how bad it looks for them they do not have a concept that they have not yet hit bottom, they are not even close.

This film would not have even been possible without the performances of newcomers (and one has to say discoveries) Brooklynn Prince as Moonee and Bria Vinaite as her mother, Halley. Both share the screen together and apart for a majority of the movie with nary a false note onscreen which considering their experience is incredible. They both inhabit their roles like any other experienced actor might, again what is amazing about his is their inexperience in this situation. They are ably supported by a variety of performers, none more so than the beacon that is the great Willem Dafoe who here shows why he is not only a great character actor but someone who can create a subtle performance that in no way steals from the story or from his leading ladies. Dafoe though acts as a sort of father as well as grandfather figure in the girls life, he is of course inhabiting traits we recognize as fatherly such as being strong, protective, being a disciplinarian as well as offering advice that is good as well as ignored by his wayward ‘daughters’. Through all of this as well as right to the end Dafoe paints a picture of caring but of also knowing he has no actual responsibility to the girls and true to his character he does not rescue them as much as we might want him to.

Films like “The Florida Project” are a rare thing indeed and should be cherished by all, it is immediately entertaining which is something that should not be underestimated as to how important this is in the kind of themes that are involved in terms of what the writer and director are illustrating to an audience. Not only that but the performances are all excellent with praise for the two leads undeniable. The direction is excellent, there are structured as well as adlibbed scenes that fit in perfectly, my favorite is an obvious on the spot creation where the camera is in font of Moonee’s face where she is eating breakfast, giving a running commentary where she slips in and out of focus, a long segment where she has to be on for the entire scene, showing what kind of actress we are seeing – possibly for the first time in the entire run time of the movie.

This is definitely one of the films of 2017, we are lucky it is in cinemas now as it is made for the big screen with some of the shots too beautiful to miss in juxtaposition to the personal story it is telling in this modern age of the rich and the poor.

“The Florida Project” is available now on DVD.

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