Director Sean Baker made waves with 2015’s “Tangerine,” surprising audiences with a festival-quality film shot entirely on an iPhone. “The Florida Project,” however, pairs Baker with a 35mm film camera and star Willem Dafoe, but retains the same loyalty to the human experience.
Stationed along a dreary stretch of highway on the outskirts of Disney World, “The Florida Project” follows 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her ramshackle gang of acquaintances as they mangle about their budget motel, The Magic Castle. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggles to balance parenthood, work and play, often neglecting to pay rent to the motel’s compassionate but reserved manager, Bobby (Dafoe).
In its simplest terms, “The Florida Project” is about childhood. During their summer break, Moonee and her band find imaginative ways to pass the time, from scrounging up money for ice cream, to exploring new territory, to helping Moonee’s mom find her weekly rent. Baker brings a renewed sense of naturalism not explored since Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” by bringing the camera down to Moonee’s level, forcing audiences to see things from her perspective.
Prince’s performance fully captures the childlike innocence exemplified by the story and takes viewers back to a time when childhood was much simpler. Adults, quite literally, take the background in this ode to adolescence.
In spite of their smaller roles, the film makes time to show Vinaite and Dafoe’s particular relationship. Vinaite, who was discovered on Instagram by Baker, conveys many of the same qualities of her on-screen daughter: impatient, immature, but immensely passionate and playful. Vinaite’s inexperience lends to her character, who too, doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing.
Dafoe, on the other hand, is tasked with expertly asserting both a certain extent of control over his tenants while simultaneously expressing kindness and care. The performance makes you wonder where Dafoe would be if he always played the good guy after a career portraying villains from Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, to “Death Note.”
The beautifully crafted script, from co-writers Baker and Chris Bergoch, will cause you to forget the screen separating reality and fantasy. Although the narrative doesn’t exactly pop out, the dialogue is enough to fully develop the diverse cast of characters with almost no backstory. The children’s banter is filled with instances of truth in their upbringing, just listen closely to hear Moonee relay something she heard from her mother.
As usual, Baker incorporates his pop verité style, suggesting a heightened realism, inflating The Magic Castle into a Cinderella Castle of sorts while striving to preserve the grimy underbelly of this particular Central Florida strip. Combined, Baker creates an immersive experience, unfamiliar in this variety, demanding you to consider this batch of characters as something other than their surface level appearances.
The only knock to this film is its resolution, or lack of one. Audiences will still be sobbing from the separation anxiety induced by Prince, but the ending may not satisfy all as it leaves loose ends untied. Nevertheless, “The Florida Project” cements Baker’s brand, proving him to be a creative force to look out for, and puts his name amongst the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Mike Leigh for his commitment to telling underrepresented stories that would never have made it to the screen before.
- “The Florida Project”
- Running Time: 115 minutes
- Rating: R
- Score: 4.5/5 stars