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Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Florida Project


The Florida Project by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

You would be forgiven if, upon watching the trailer for The Florida Project, you thought you were tuned in to an update of the old Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies, this time with Darla in the lead.  A tribe of six-year-olds running amok through modern-day tenements spreading hi-jinks and making all of the adults around them tear out their hair.  But director Sean Baker (Tangerine) who also co-wrote along with Chris Bergoch, has something deeper and more multi-layered in mind, and as he shot Tangerine exclusively on iPhone 5s smartphones, The Florida Project has a distinct cinema verite look.  Despite the fact that it focuses on one summer in the life of a little girl living hand-to-mouth in the shadows of Disneyworld's opulence, Baker avoids romanticism and sentimentality.  It's a smart move that elevates the film.  Still, though, does it deserve the wild adulation it has accrued?  As our own Captain HE observed after FilmZ asked that very question: "I think [the raves are] the reaction of people who never experienced this lifestyle up close and personal."

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is the ringleader of a band of wild children that run rampant through the environs of the Magic Castle motel, a shelter for the working poor one roof away from homelessness.   For a child unaware of this stark reality, it is in its own way an idyllic playground where a kid can cut the electricity for the entire complex and watch what happens.  During one foray into neighboring Futureland motel complex, Moonee and the kids sit on the balcony and spit on a car below.  When the woman who owns the car catches them and forces them to clean it off, the kids meet the car owner's granddaughter Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a sweet child who immediately joins the core crew that also includes Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

Though the kids stay one step ahead of most adults, motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) sees all with baleful reflection.  He is our surrogate observer, and though his eyes tell us they have seen too many bad ends, his actions hold the optimism that his interventions and deep-seated affection--especially for the children--just might be enough to keep the denizens of the Magic Castle above water.  Most problematic in that respect is Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee's 22-year old mother.  Halley provides by subsistence: selling cheap perfume in parking lots of the posh hotels that cater to Disney tourists; sending Moonee for free breakfast, sneaked out of the back door of the diner where Scooty's mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works; relying on excuses and Bobby's good nature for late rent payment.

Halley loves and cares for Moonee, probably to the best of her ability, although that ability is limited by the endemic social conditions that accompany poverty.  As a result, Halley is more of a fun big sister, and her lack of training--as a mother and as a wage earner--severely limits the effective stewardship she can provide the little girl.  As Moonee's reckless summer of fun continues unabated, Halley's tenuous grasp on economic viability loosens--both elements converge after one of the kids' misadventures when the aware, responsible Ashley sees through Scooty's feignred innocence and forbids him from hanging around with Moonee anymore literally ending Halley's and Moonee's free lunch.  All this time we watch and identify with Bobby's reactions, and we begin to feel, as he seems to fear, that things will not end well.

From the descriptions above, it's obvious that TFP is episodic, a series of events and vignettes disparate and loosely constructed.  As the story progresses, loose threads connect events and lead toward an abrupt conclusion, our only clue coming from an equally abrupt change of style.  At Cannes, Baker revealed his dream: to make a film about children “that focused on their resilience, their innocence, and their comic nature."  Mission accomplished, and to that end a success.  The vast majority of critics love The Florida Project and Willem Dafoe's restrained, nuanced performance as the gruff but kindly Bobby.  Some have wanted to include Brooklyn Prince in Oscar talk, and as precocious and natural as she is, she is a kid play-acting, and some of the notes, like a close-up crying scene, do not ring true.  Bria Vinaite delivers a convincing if uneven performance (Baker uses a number of non- professional actors).  The major flaw in this film comes from Baker's dream: while it is entertaining to watch children's hijinks, it is overdone--redundant and dragging, at times.  Cinematographer Alexis Zabe captures the tacky pastel palette and sun-bleached summer of tourist-trap Florida.  Some have compared TFP to last year's Moonlight in projecting an Oscar surprise for another Florida-based film.  And while TFP is timely, focusing on modern-day Joads at the moment Washington has chosen to transfer even more of the nation's wealth to those who already control most of it, it is not a Grapes of Wrath so much as a precocious docudrama.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale (Dafoe is a frontrunner for Supporting Actor, probable nomination for Picture, outside chance of nominations for Director, Original Screenplay

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