The Florida Project

(USA 2017)

“Relax. Your daughter’s perfectly fine in my hands.”

— Moonee

Sean Baker’s Tangerine ( impressed me. On the surface an offbeat odyssey of castoffs living on the fringe in West Hollywood, it’s one of those films that creeps up and hits you at the end. Comprised largely of small moments and vignettes strung together, its sum is much more — and completely different — than its parts: insightful, powerful, and quietly profound.

Come to think of it, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight ( operates in a similar way even though it’s not the same story.

I was thrilled to hear that Baker has a new film, The Florida Project, out this fall. The comments I overheard from audience members while walking out of a prerelease screening were amusing but maddening: “That was realism, hard realism. Too hard.” “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” “I had to force myself to stay awake.” “I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.” Insert eyeroll here.

I disagree. The Florida Project switches gears, so it doesn’t end up where it seems to be going. The trailer makes it look like a childhood nostalgia movie, and it starts out like one. But it’s not. Often amusing but just as often difficult to watch, it paints a vivid picture that doesn’t criticize, demean, or sentimentalize its characters or their situation. I’ve heard Baker lauded for his humanism; his work definitely shows plenty of that if nothing else. His best attribute may be his willingness to let his characters develop into real people over the course of two hours or so.

To be clear, the impact of The Florida Project is not immediate. Baker’s pace isn’t quick, either. Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project starts out as a sort of Little Rascals sitcom involving the misadventures of besties Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), two grade school kids growing up in a sketchy roadside motel, the Magic Castle, that sits along a tawdry strip just outside the Magic Kingdon — a.k.a. Disney World in Orlando. A gun shop, a convenience store, a market that sells oranges, and a boarded up clinic dot the strip, which incidentally intersects with Seven Dwarves Lane.

Moonee and Scooty spend their days running around, screaming, and stirring up mischief. They spit all over a motel guest’s car. They drop water balloons on people. They spy on an elderly topless sunbather (Sandy Kane). They scam change to buy ice cream. They set a fire. They recruit a third hellion, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives next door and easily goes along with their antics probably because there’s no one else to play with. Their favorite target is weary motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Slowly, a different picture emerges and The Florida Project becomes another film. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), can’t get it together. Feral and clearly her own worst enemy, she lives hand to mouth with her young daughter. She’s constantly about to be evicted, and she takes free meals wherever she can get them. When selling stolen amusement park passes and wholesale perfume in the parking lot of a “nicer” motel up the street doesn’t work, she turns tricks in the room.

After Halley has a falling out with Scooty’s mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), Baker literally zooms in on Moonee.

The events here are purposely mundane, and it’s hard to say exactly where the climax is. It doesn’t matter: The Florida Project works because of the way Baker executes the story. He’s just as careful about choosing what he shows as what he doesn’t. The thrill here is watching the characters develop, anyway; that’s what makes The Florida Project soar. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is superb, particularly Vinaite, Prince (who at six years old is a natural — I almost cried when she did), and Dafoe, whom I haven’t seen this good since Mississippi Burning.

Alexis Zabe’s cinematography — alternating long shots and pans with almost uncomfortably close shots — works beautifully with the gorgeously effervescent color palette. The ending is unexpectedly touching and fun. The Florida Project just might be the first Oscar contender I’ve seen this year.

With Josie Olivo, Aiden Malik, Caleb Landry Jones, Shail Kamini Ramcharan, Sonya McCarter, Karren Karagulian, Kelly Fitzgerald, Lauren O’Quinn, Edward Pagan, Cecilia Quinan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano

Production: Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, June Pictures, Sweet Tomato Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Altitude Film Distribution (UK), Elevation Pictures (Canada), Filmcoopi Zürich (Switzerland), September Film (Netherlands), Front Row Filmed Entertainment (United Arab Emirates)

115 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) A-

Chicago International Film Festival

2 thoughts on “The Florida Project

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