Take people from Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and the other various Caribbean Islands, mix in a large elderly Jewish population, elderly people in general from all walks of life, a dash of college students looking to attend the nation’s most notorious party schools or just spend some time getting drunk and wearing skimpy clothes while on break, and family tourists also wanting some beach time and good clean amusement park fun, and you have the recipe for Florida. It’s an unusual but not quite volatile mix resulting in a place which seems sickeningly sweet on the surface, but as you get past that surface you can see that things are often rancid. The Florida Project is a slice of life film featuring the story of a young single mother (Halley played by Bria Vinalte) and her precocious but delinquent 6-year-old daughter (Moonee played by Brooklyn Prince) who live in a run-down hotel which exists on a strip in Orlando riddled with gaudily decorated souvenir and gift shops capitalizing on their proximity to Walt Disney World. Also featured is Willem Dafoe as the hotel’s long-suffering but good-natured manager Bobby.
The Florida Project most definitely has a story it is telling, but it’s not one which is obvious until the film’s final frames as it is more concerned with just showing the everyday lives of its poverty-stricken but optimistic protagonists. This is a film which is very much concerned with how a poor unemployed mother manages to pay for rent and food every week, but also showing what it is about her which could put such a beautiful, friendly person in the situation in which she’s found herself. It’s a film which shows us how a 6-year-old girl who is smart and charming can see a world of tourists and poverty as a place which is still magical, adults are people who buy her ice cream, pranks are fun for everyone, and a hotel’s continental breakfast is the greatest thing on the planet. The Florida Project much like the tourist traps just down the road from its action is far more concerned with an experience than with a plot.
The only veteran actor in the film is Willem Dafoe, the rest of the cast is a ragtag bunch found via Instagram and talent agencies and are working for the first time on camera. It’s amazing, then, that this cast is so adept at both standard acting and at improvisation. It’s obvious that there are scenes which are both scripted and scenes which are completely off the cuff, but what is not obvious is which are which until the film is over and you can see where the audience is ultimately being led. We expect this from Dafoe, but when Bria Vinalte riffs with her fictional daughter one second then gives an impassioned speech to her best friend the next, we know that there is some real natural talent on display. Most impressive is 6-year-old Brooklyn Prince. She has to give the audience its point of view and also act as the film’s emotional core, and you know when she is conning tourists at the ice cream stand or running with her friends through the Orlando landscape that she is “just being a kid”, but then when she shows she can also shatter our hearts into pieces with one of the most realistic and affecting emotional breakdowns ever put on screen we see that this child truly is an actor, as well.
Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project, is not yet a household name, but if he continues his trend of giving us visual dynamic films with a twist of the innovative he may soon be. He has given us a film shot entirely on an iPhone (Tangerine) and even when not using a gimmick (I prefer to call it an experiment) he shows he has an eye which excels at framing the people who are the true focus of his attention, but which can also step back and show us the character of the landscape these people are framed against. The Florida Project is absolutely gorgeous, but it also artistically captures the emotion of the impoverished areas near the Magic Kingdom accurately and impressively expressing its vibe of equal parts whimsy and desperation. The only film this year that can match the impressive cinematography of The Florida Project is Blade Runner 2049, and that film had a large budget and special effects to lean on. The Florida Project has no such crutches.
The Florida Project may not have a very specific story to tell, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to say. Its characters are flawed, but not so flawed that we can’t identify with them, and this is the most important take away to come out of the movie. This film is meant to show us a culture which may be slightly foreign to us, but the characters themselves are people we know very well, if not mirror images of ourselves. They are caring, loving, occasionally thoughtless, scrabbling to get through life without a clear set of rules to follow and with ruts easily fallen into. They aren’t pure altruists, but they do love people and are attached to those closest to them even if that attachment isn’t healthy or helpful and they know it. The Florida Project is not meant to be escapism, but it is meant to remove you from your own life and see the world through someone else’s eyes, a child’s eyes, for a couple of hours, and in that it succeeds.
When I lived in Florida, I used to joke that people went there to retire not because of the weather – while it is warm, it’s also constantly humid and subject to being battered by tropical storms and hurricanes on a semi-regular basis – but because Florida gives the illusion that while you are there time doesn’t pass. It’s a comforting but dangerous illusion which is at the center of Florida living. The Florida Project captures the essence of that part of Florida life perfectly, leaving us with an appreciation of the honestly gorgeous nature left in the state, a mix of whimsy and shame at the superficial gaudiness humans have inflicted on that nature, and deep distress at what life in that state has done to those who can’t seem to escape it.
Final verdict: If you like a strong dose of reality in your films, an authenticity which sees its characters just trying to get through life and not as plot devices, then The Florida Project will most definitely appeal. To those who are more interested in film for its entertainment value, this is a little tougher of a sell. There is entertainment to be had in Moonee’s antics and in the complex relationships between Moonee, Bobby, and Halley, but it’s not the entertainment of a standard story with complications to be overcome, villains to be defeated, and rousing finishes. The Florida Project is gorgeous and artistic, it’s charming and thoughtful and very emotional, but it is not exciting nor gripping. If you liked last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight, then I think you will enjoy this, as well, as they have a lot in common including the setting. If you didn’t get why Moonlight was a big deal, you probably won’t see a lot in The Florida Project, either.