MOVIE REVIEW: The Florida Project

(Image courtesy of A24 via EPK.tv)

THE FLORIDA PROJECT-- 4 STARS

The simmering impact of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project calls to mind this quote from the venerated Mother Theresa:

We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.

Following a summer through the eyes of a six-year-old girl residing in a slum hotel, the slice of Americana portrayed by The Florida Project hammers that quote home and poses the question of what kind of childhood can come from an impoverished environment.  Baker’s brave and bracing film is far from a whimsical fable.  It is a dramatic thumbnail depiction of a growing section of this nation’s culture that many may not want to admit exists, let alone condone.

LESSON #1: DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU CULTURE DOESN’T EXIST IN POVERTY-- The distressed decisions and unstable sacrifices you will watch in The Florida Project constitute a way of life.  It is unique, learned, and a result of hard luck and poor choices.  It is a culture that, like anywhere else up or down the socioeconomic scale, has its own broken set of rules and ideals.  Such may not be your refined idea of “culture,” but it still counts as a subculture that exists in this country and world.

Moonee, played with all the youthful energy in the world by Brooklynn Prince, is introduced dropping profanity and performing carefree bad behavior with other troublemaker neighbors.  She lives with her 20-something party girl dancer mother Halley (the debuting Bria Vinaite) in Room 323 of the Magic Castle Inn in Kissimmee, Florida.  Populated by fellow vagabonds and maintained by its staunch manager Bobby (a headlining Willem Dafoe), their loudly lilac living quarters is one of several makeshift rental residences and colorful throwback businesses that dot the beaten path away from the resorts and riches in neighboring Orlando.  

When Moonee is not helping her mother scam rich people with wholesale perfume in country club parking lots for rent money, she navigates her hand-me-down habitat and squalid suburban surroundings.  Her mundane is your undesirable.  Often flocked by Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), Moonee is virtually unsupervised other than the frayed and disapproving eye of Bobby, who is part indifferent judge and part sympathetic protector.  Halley’s level of parenting starts and mostly stops with a yell of “what did you do now?”.  Enterprising in her delinquency, Moonee knows the ways to squeeze tourists for pocket change, score free food, savor ice cream, and scrounge out her own adventures.

LESSON #2: KIDS WILL BE KIDS-- Unaware of any example but her present bad one, Moonee is still a kid, only with rougher traits than the norm.  Children like this are more industrious than we realize (industrious liars too) and observe more than we give them credit for.  In Moonee’s setting, kids like her are missing positive guidance, good nutrition, active parenting, firm morals, polished education, and half of their remorse and honesty.  What they don’t lack is the spirit, precociousness, imagination, and the other halves of that unformed remorse and honesty, all fitting of their age.  Kids are weirdos, but innocent weirdos.  Moonee could just as easily be your own daughter born to different circumstances.

The heft of that lesson comes from the extraordinary central performance of Brooklynn Prince.  Bad egg or not, you root for that little girl.  Following Jacob Tremblay in Room in 2015 and Sunny Pawar in last year’s Lion, this is the third year in a row to contain a child performance that is Oscar-worthy next to performers ten-times their ages.  With staggering naturalness and brazen enthusiasm, Prince typifies and exudes the aforementioned spirit, precociousness, and imagination.  Willem Dafoe matches her audaciousness with a calming salve of underlying heart.

Celebrated Tangerine director Sean Baker, collaborating again as a co-writer with Chris Bergoch, transmutes much of the same improvisation and sunny aesthetic urban palette from that L.A.-set movie across the country to Florida.  Scoreless with music until a finale from Lorne Balfe, the film’s probing eyes mix an intimate handheld camera from cinematographer Alexis Zabe with static Wes Anderson-esque long shots of observational distance capturing the fluctuating vibrancy of the landscape’s colors, architecture, and urban art.  An ugly world never looked so beautiful.

LESSON #3: POOR CHOICES LEAD TO POOR CIRCUMSTANCES-- If you’re coming into The Florida Project waiting for and wanting the redeeming qualities to outnumber bad ones, you may be unprepared for the heartbreak at this film’s core.  You may throw your hands in the air with a “we get it” exasperation or let out a patronizing “go get a job” rant about the messy circumstances you are watching for two hours.  Yes, Halley’s poor choices cause every deplorable character feature and calamitous outcome observed, but climbing out of those circumstances isn’t as easy your rant or bootstrap-pulling sigh.

Few filmmakers and studios have the courage to put this kind of portrait of uncomfortable and morally objectionable hardship into a marketed product for the masses.  The prevailing, yet heedless, expectations likely include a magical broom of narrative convenience that makes the problems go away and allows for a plucky and hopeful conclusion.  The worst thing you can say is that “nothing happened” in The Florida Project with some false pretense that something was supposed to, solely to make you feel better.  Your voyeuristic fulfillment doesn’t help the population represented by the film.  Convenient Hollywood endings don’t exist in the real-life social commentary Baker’s film examines.  Applaud a film that dares to push that stark reality.

LESSON #4: THE CAPACITY TO FEEL EMPATHY-- The crucial emotional response The Florida Project demands of its viewers is empathy.  If you can’t find that, if you turn your nose, close your eyes, and refuse to accept that this kind of American lifestyle exists, you are missing the hard truths, the teachable moments, and the larger points being presented.  Become compassionate enough to remove the negative prefixes from Mother Teresa's quote of “unwanted, unloved and uncared for” when it comes to addressing poverty.  Take her advice and start in your own home and community.

LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#612)

LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#612)