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The Florida Project Movie Review

The Florida Project (2017) movie poster The Florida Project

Theatrical Release: October 6, 2017 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Sean Baker / Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

Cast: Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Brooklynn Kimberly Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Grandma Stacy), Mela Murder (Ashley), Sandy Kane (Gloria), Carl Bradfield (Charlie Coachman), Macon Blair (Tourist John)


In 2015, writer-director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch made some major waves at least among film critics for Tangerine. The duo's second collaboration was acclaimed for its portrayal of transgendered Hollywood prostitutes and for having been shot entirely on an iPhone. Two years later, Baker and Bergoch are back with the kind of post-acclaim follow-up that filmmakers hope and strive for.
The Florida Project lets Baker and Bergoch enjoy a bigger budget, a bigger cast, and bigger expectations. It has the distribution of growing prestige player A24 and may well invite comparison to Moonlight, the studio's small yet celebrated reigning Best Picture Oscar winner. Like that film, this one is set in the South and centers on impoverished people struggling to get by.

Florida is set in Orlando, a city most associate with Walt Disney World. Close enough to that self-proclaimed Most Magical Place on Earth is the Magic Castle, a dumpy lavender-colored motel that is home to our protagonists, 6-year-old Moonee (Brookylnn Kimberly Prince) and her aqua-haired mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Our focus is initially and often on Moonee and her friend and fellow Magic Castle guest Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

After the opening titles curiously set to Kool and the Gang's "Celebration", we get a glimpse at what constitutes a good time for Moonee and Scooty: spitting over a balcony at a neighboring hotel onto a car and shouting "ratchet" and "bitch" when its owner protests their actions. These kids are rarely supervised by their extensively tattooed, undereducated, and financially strapped single parents. They spend their days walking past garish tourist trap gift shops, getting money for ice cream from vacationers, and getting free food out back from the diner where Scooty's mother works.

Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) eat an ice cream cone bought for them by tourists inside the Magic Castle motel in "The Florida Project."

Halley's daily plan isn't all that more sophisticated or ambitious than her daughter. She raises the weekly rent needed to stay at the $38/night spot consistently and nearly ontime. How? Well, she buys bottles of perfume wholesale and resells them in the parking lot of a classier hotel nearby. Other dubious sources of income are hinted at. The motel's hard-working and surprisingly decent manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) tolerates Halley's presence and the complaints raised about the unruly kids, just as long as they spend a night elsewhere once every 30 days to avoid establishing legal residency at the place.

Like certain other indies, Florida is driven less by plot than atmosphere. The movie disarms by giving us a slice of life so very different from our own. It's raw, it's messy, and it's surprisingly authentic for being performed largely by children plus a mix of established and unknown adult actors. These are not characters we'd want to spend an elevator ride with, let alone multiple days. But while that might drive some viewers away, it's presented in such an earnest fashion that I couldn't help getting swept up by this and wanting to see how it plays out.

You can practically feel the dirt and bedbug bites and the whole affair runs a genuine risk of playing as exploitative. But Baker's direction and the screenplay he wrote with Bergoch are too inviting to create the distance you need to judge. You're right there, sympathizing with the kids who find ways to entertain themselves and with the hotel manager who is trying so hard to keep his place running and inhabitable, a challenging prospect given his down and out clientele.

Willem Dafoe seems destined to pick up his third Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his appealing turn as Bobby, the beleagured manager of the Magic Castle motel.

I would be more surprised if Dafoe does not pick up his third Academy Award nomination for his turn here than if he wins the Best Supporting Actor award last claimed by Moonlight's Mahershala Ali.
Top-billed, Dafoe has enough screentime to qualify as a lead, but his character maintains something of peripheral presence to the mother and daughter in the foreground. The 62-year-old actor, who has often brought menace and complexity to his work, surprises here with complete and utter decency. The scene in which Bobby ushers a sketchy wandering senior with lust in his eyes away from the playing kids who don't notice him to the vending machine he was allegedly seeking is arresting and gives us a deeper understanding and appreciation for a character you might expect the film to frame as the villain.

Florida Project is too real to present such things in simple terms. Halley is clearly not on the up and up. When she sells four park hopper magic bands at a discount to a foreign traveler, you wonder what the scam is and come to learn it's not what you thought it was. And yet, she is doing such things to survive and to provide something resembling a home to a child going through life disadvantage through no fault of her own. There is much to think about and process in one viewing, as the struggle of surviving here evokes other recent hard-hitting films like Moonlight, the similarly Orlando motel-set 99 Homes, and American Honey.

Florida Project boasts a budget thirty times that of Baker and Bergoch's previous film. Even so, that amounts to just $3 million, a pittance compared to most Hollywood productions. That puts this at a disadvantage for the awards season. But if A24 could pull off the biggest surprise Best Picture win in ages with Moonlight, whose budget was just $4 million, we probably can't eliminate Florida for being too small, especially as critics heap greater praise on it than any other film this year. Could Baker break through with Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations? Stranger things have happened. Just five years ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild landed four major Oscar nominations on an even smaller budget of just $1.8 M.

But awards can wait. For now, The Florida Project deserves to be seen simply on the basis that it tells a different story in a different way from the other films that are out there and it moves and entertains in the process, from its disarming opening to its wildly exhilarating, perhaps inevitable finale. This original, pretenseless movie opens your eyes to story, characters, and styles that are a welcome departure from the tried and true conventions that feature this time every year.

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99 Homes American Honey Moonlight Beasts of the Southern Wild George Washington
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Reviewed October 6, 2017.

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