The Florida Project: Touchingly Human
Review by Aaron Haughton
Sean Baker serves up a strong and poignant follow up to Tangerine with The Florida Project. The film is an ode to the magic of childhood and is a profoundly entertaining celebration of the people living day-to-day to make ends meet. Its'a a rare gem that is sure to warm even the coldest of hearts, and it proves that Baker is one of the most humane filmmakers working today.
The film takes place at the Magic Inn, a somewhat seedy motel located in Orlando right next to the most magical place on earth (aka Disney World). The film is told entirely through the eyes of a rambunctious 6-year-old girl, Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince). Moonee's mother, Halley (played by another newcomer Bria Vinaite), is a fiercely rebellious and struggles to get the rent paid each week by running a knock-off perfume hustle on the tourists residing at the nicer resorts nearby. Lucky for Halley, the Magic Inn manager, Bobby (played by the wonderful William Dafoe), is very compassionate about the motel's tenets, treating them in many cases as a surrogate father. Forced to find fun outside the Disney gates during the summer, Moonee and her ragtag gang of neighboring motel rascals manage to find it in the most mundane and unexpected places.
The film really is pretty magical, and in a lot of ways, it defies its synopsis, which isn't all too intriguing on its own. The story is one that we've seen a million times, but you've never seen it this honest or this beautifully told.
A lot of the magic derives from Baker's ability to craft a compelling narrative that has the potential to change your perspective. Take, for instance, the setting. The Magic Inn is a motel that you'd definitely pass without even batting an eye. If you did notice the motel, you'd likely pass judgements on the type of people that would venture to stay there, probably assuming that they're poor -- and you wouldn't be wrong about that. However, as Baker immerses you in this world that you would never dare enter yourself, you start to empathize with the motel's colorful array of outcasts and their somewhat sad and hopeless situation, ultimately arriving to the realization that there's more to these characters other than their obvious lack of wealth. At that point, the film's got it's hooks deep into your skin.
Similar to Baker's previous film Tangerine or last year's American Honey, the film shines a light on the people living on the boundaries of inclusion in society, nearly homeless, living day-to-day, week-to-week out of cheap motels. Baker's style is to humanize these people living on the fringe with unflinching honesty, never once passing judgement on his subjects. Halley is one of the worst mothers of all time, but she always makes her decisions, no matter how lurid they may be, for the welfare of her own child. Moonee is a near feral and pretty awful kid, but she still shows a monumental amount of heart and compassion when it matters most.
The film is sad and heartbreaking, but also joyous and very comical, and Baker's ability to balance all these emotions is virtuosic. The film is very raw, and it carries an undeniable amount of energy that ripples through every frame. Even if you find the kids or adults to be obnoxious, or you're frustrated that there's not too much happening with the story, the film will still win you over after everything's said and done.
The performances in the film are first-rate, which may be surprising considering many of the performers don't have a credit to their name, and Baker found Bria Vinaite (Halley), who isn't an actress, on Instagram. However, and this should come as no surprise, Dafoe absolutely crushes it as Magic Inn manager Bobby, delivering the best performance of his long and noteworthy career.
The ending comes rather abruptly, and it will either work for your or it won't. Tonally, it feels a little out of place, but it's the best ending imaginable, and it brings the film to a much needed magical high note conclusion.
Overall, it's a very visceral, realistic, and honestly touching film, well worth your time and money. The world needs more films like this. So, take a trip to the most magical place on earth without ever really entering the park. Trust me, you won't regret it.
Rating: 5 shared ice cream cones outta 5.
What do you think? Do you think the film is better than Tangerine? Is the best Baker's made to date? Did you hate it? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!