The Florida Project


*** 1/2

A portrait of childhood as an escape from the hard realities of socioeconomic misfortune and emotionally ill-equipped parents, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an observation of a handful of South Florida motel denizens trying their damndest to survive while their children somehow manage to live a happy existence on the periphery of the troubles. At once lyrical and sobering, Baker’s picture is a rambling, poignant evocation of a time and place in both Florida and adolescence. It’s a scrappy, rough-edged thing with a very big heart.

As Baker explored in his celebrated 2015 debut Tangerine, about a Los Angeles prostitute tracking down her boyfriend (and pimp) rendered in a similar lyrical tone, The Florida Project looks up close at unseen fringes, namely a band of transient kids led by spirited, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who resides in “The Magic Castle” motel off the Florida strip near Disney World, with her troubled, too-young mother, Halley (Bria Vitaite, extraordinary).

Moonee and friends waste the summer days away as kids always do, traipsing between innocence and mischief, which lands them in trouble with one of the motel’s less forgiving guests. Mom Halley isn’t old enough, mature enough or solvent enough to give her daughter much consistency, and is prone to hair-trigger, impulsive mood swings of a daily struggle—the movie is about the bare minimums of making it—to survive with next to nothing but love.

In the middle of this melee is Willem Dafoe in a tender performance as the kindly motel manager torn between his duty to the property and his largely unspoken compassion for Halley and Moonee, a sort of guardian angel father figure who wishes Halley could get herself together but at the same time needs to collect the rent..

Baker’s biggest narrative leap of faith is the presentation of potentially horrifying circumstances and the perpetrator, Halley, laid bare for our judgment. How you feel about her will decide what you think this movie is about and whether or not you can empathize.

Conveying this complexity, Vitaite delivers a performance that alternately repels and absorbs. As “bad” a mother as she may be—juvenile, foul-mouthed, in a state of stunted adolescence herself who spends her time hawking knock-off perfumes, turning tricks, scarfing down pizza and ultimately exploding in a vicious act of violence against her best friend—Vinaite manages to turn Halley’s epic poor judgment into something deeply sad. As we are watching things go from bad to worse, like Dafoe’s Bobby, we wish we could save her, and Moonee, from herself. In a tricky performance giving voice to the beaten down and ill-equipped parents of the world, this inexperienced unknown makes more of an impression onscreen than almost anyone this year. Displaying a surprising confidence and swagger until the house of cards comes down, it’s an original and ferocious portrait.

As young Moonee, newcomer Brooklynn Prince is funny and smart with impeccable comic timing that is never precocious. It’s been said that struggling parents never convey the depth of such to their children, and the young actress shows us how Monee lets her mother’s troubles roll off her back, undeterred.

While the first half of the picture is rooted in the routines and fun of the children—water balloon pranks, afternoon trips to the ice cream shop and a sunny vision of Orlando as an optimistic playground—the second half eventually addresses the darker implications of living recklessly on the margins when DCF comes calling and the sins of the fathers are visited.

The picture is not without faults, and The Florida Project has an aimless, episodic structure at times, which one might argue is indicative of any childhood. That may be true, but what that quality does is eschew narrative drive in favor of anecdote, and it can feel randomly assembled

Cinematographer Alexis Zabe captures the candy-colored, pastel tackiness of the motel strip in all its synthetic, gauche glory, a fantasia of pinks, greens and Florida sunsets. One misstep is a final sequence musical underscore by Lorne Balfe that is too prominent, and too melodramatic, robbing the moment of poignancy.

The Florida Project presents a believable portrait of stunted parental development and the inability to break cycles of poor judgment while you are struggling to make ends meet, and struggling harder to make good decisions while usually failing. And in its own way, it ranks with the best movies about childhood as a safe haven until bitter reality intrudes.

The final sequence delivers a shattering coup de grace of innocence lost. Some may read the picture’s final scenes as a step in the right direction, but it broke my heart nonetheless.

Highly recommended.

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