One of director Sean Baker’s most defining traits is his ability to paint a living, breathing portrait of life and its drawbacks. For his latest film, which premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, The Florida Project (2017), this is certainly the case. The story mostly revolves around the mother/daughter relationship between struggling 22-year-old mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). The two live in a low-end motel smack in the middle of Orlando, Florida’s dilapidated tourist strip that the years have not been kind to – thanks to the apparent success of Disney World just a stone’s throw away. While the movie can be seen as a coming of age for six-year-old Moonee, it is also a heart wrenching look at the impoverished and forgotten denizens that Baker captures in effortless fashion.
Where Baker shines the most as a director is his ability to elicit incredible performances from relatively unknown talent: Brooklynn Prince’s first two films were released in 2017 and Bria Vinaite is an Instagram discovery who makes her feature-debut in this movie. Vinaite’s Halley is struggling to find a job and keep her head afloat – often by hinging on her friend, another single mother living in the rundown motel. Halley makes every effort to make ends meet by selling knock-off perfume in the parking lots of Orlando’s nicer hotels. She brings Moonee with her everywhere as a sympathy card, but she never allows Moonee to see her desperation or witness her breakdown. The same can be said about her efforts to seem well-off in front of the people she is trying to haggle. Sure enough, things don’t go in Halley’s direction and she begins to take drastic measures to conceal from Moonee, the motel residents, and herself that the clock is ticking and it’s only a matter of time before they can’t stay in the motel and/or Moonee can’t stay with her mother. Like most 22-year-olds, Halley cannot help but stall everything and everyone around her to hold onto her daughter and the little hope she has left in her.
The motel’s manager, Bobby, is the one person who tries everything in their power to help Halley/Moonee, as well as the rest of the motel-residents (an Oscar-worthy and possibly career-defining performance from Willem Dafoe). As the motel manager, Bobby witnesses first-hand the deterioration of the motel, its surroundings, and the inhabitants. He has his own struggles with his family and the pressures of maintaining the business, but Bobby is an inherently good person and manages an undiluted sympathy toward the guests of the motel. Bobby has no responsibility for the guests or for their children running around the yards and parking lot; still, he watches out for the kids and even goes so far as to chase off a suspicious man who gets a little too close to the children for Bobby’s liking. Bobby not only serves as a father figure for the children – whom he lets play hide and seek in his office and permits ice cream in his air conditioned lobby so long as not a single drop is dripped on his floor – but to the parents as well, who struggle to pay their rent and look to Bobby for guidance. He’s an everyman and Willem Dafoe’s performance conveys a reassuring decency in trying times. Bobby is the first and last line of defense for these people, and he is the only true ray of hope in many of their lives.
Baker captures Moonee and the rest of her friends with such a keen eye for joyous naturalism and character that you cannot help but smile – even if that smile is holding back tears as you witness their obliviousness to near-homelessness. Baker, along with his director of photography Alexis Zabie, not only convey the charm of childhood but allow the long takes to truly capture a mood or maintain a feeling before effortlessly cutting away to the next scene. DP Zabie also keeps the camera rolling for Dafoe, and a number of tracking shots and long-takes make their way out of the editing room, allowing Dafoe to show viewers why he’s still one of the best working actors in Hollywood.
The final moments of The Florida Project allow Moonee to take center-stage for the first time in the two hour duration. While I won’t spoil the circumstances or the results, to say that the final moments may break your heart is truly an understatement. In fact, don’t be surprised if your spirit is shattered completely. Perhaps it’s because the conclusion of the narrative is left rather ambiguous, but I cannot remember another time in a movie theater where every person in the audience talked about what they had just witnessed while the credits still rolled. Whether you enjoy the film/its ending or not, there is certainly something to say about director Sean Baker and his decisions as a writer/director: he challenges his audience. He challenges them to truly think about what he decides to show on screen and how to react, relate, or interpret that within their own lives. I’m still not entirely sure if I enjoyed the ending, but the fact that I was thinking about it and its ramifications for days after I saw this movie speaks volumes about The Florida Project and its emotional impact.
For the first time in a while, I felt challenged by a movie. The Florida Project puts unknown actors in the forefront of a hilarious and heartbreaking tale that is almost unclassifiable. It is beautifully shot on 35mm film and showcases what can be seen as a colorful theme park for a child. For a struggling adult, it is a dark, bleak result of a generation’s ceaseless tragedy. Director Sean Baker gives you all you need to know about these individuals, but it is up to audiences to piece certain things together and realize, like Moonee, that not everything is as it seems on the surface. Be on the lookout for The Florida Project when it receives a wider release, it will surely be a contender this awards season.
If you haven’t seen our ranking of our favorite films of 2017, feel free to view our montage edited by Ethan!