FILM REVIEW: The Florida Project (2017)
Who hasn’t been looking forward to watching the next production from Sean Baker after the demented brilliance of 2015’s Tangerine? The film that was shot entirely on an iPhone and was completely frenzied and weird but also jam-packed with sweetness and humanity? It was one of those ‘breath of fresh air’ viewings, so bold and surprising that it felt like it could’ve been a fluke. Well I have good news: It wasn’t a fluke! The Florida Project, Baker’s latest, is even BETTER.
Set over one summer in a motel on the outskirts of Disney World, we are placed in the shoes of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her playmates as they roam free across their kingdom, causing havoc for the motel’s owner, Bobby, played wonderfully by Willem Dafoe. He is the ‘Dad’ of the motel, looking out for his residents whilst also regularly being driven crazy by them. It’s a story about family, and a community of people trying to get along in an unrelentingly harsh environment; Moonee’s courageous single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), will do whatever it takes to provide her daughter with what she needs.
Baker has crafted each of his characters with so much love that we simply have no other choice than to fall in love with them ourselves and become instantly adjoined to their perspective. We experience the highs and lows of their journey as if we are one of them. This is helped, of course, by the utterly engaging performances of the main cast, who lift the film to a new level of verisimilitude by making us feel as though we are watching real people in their real environment, rather than actors in a movie. It’s a testament to Baker’s skill as a director that he managed to get such remarkable, natural performances out of such young actors. Every facial expression and brazen intonation delivered by Prince is genius, worthy of study. Vinaite is remarkable in the way that she fits so instinctively into the children’s world, getting down on their level, playing a character who is forced to push aside all of her fear so that she can focus on giving her daughter a life that is filled with love, if nothing else. It’s a challenging and highly emotional role to pull off, requiring Vinaite to practically become a child herself, but she makes it look effortless.
One of the things that sets Baker apart as a director stylistically is the choices he makes in terms of what to focus on in each scene, and how much of the story to reveal to us. He is confident that the audience will ‘get it’ without the need for exposition or superfluous dialogue – the mark of a truly accomplished storyteller. We see very little of the interactions between Bobby and his son, for instance, but we know that their relationship – and the relationship between him and the other family members – must be fraught with complexities and lingering hurt. Something has happened there but we don’t ever find out what it is, and we don’t need to. We also only have to hazard a guess as to why we keep seeing Moonee alone in the bathtub, playing with her toys, her mother elsewhere. It’s the scenes we don’t see that help to build a bigger picture of the story, and it takes real confidence and skill to tell a story in this way.
The movie’s cinematography is just another facet of its immersive-ness. Baker’s decision to shoot on 35mm film gives The Florida Project its dreamy, nostalgic aesthetic, every frame flooded with rich texture and bright pastels. If only the real world were this colourful! It all adds to the experience of seeing the story through a child’s eyes, and the fact that Baker keeps his camera firmly at the eye-level of our child characters for pretty much the whole film is another ingenious move. As well as this there is a beautiful haziness in the way he plays with depth of field, particularly in the scenes shot in nature, where Moonee is at her most content. He really inhabits every setting that he shoots, surrounding us, inviting us in, in a way that is viscerally refreshing and unique to his sensibility as a director. When you leave the cinema you are still in that world, seeing everything as a child would, as though you have been through some kind of transmutation.
I’ve heard The Florida Project referred to as ‘this year’s Moonlight’, but I would liken it more to Andrea Arnold’s exquisite 2016 film American Honey. The two stories seem to exist in the same world of hazy, heady youth, with characters trying to make it through a poverty-stricken life one day at a time whilst finding beauty in their often ‘ugly’ surroundings. It’s a totally immersive, emotionally affecting watch, and if the ending doesn’t make you bawl like a toddler then your heart is obviously made of ice.