Disney’s overrated anyway.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a young girl currently living in a shady, relatively scummy hotel with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinai). Most days, Moonee is spending her time running around with her friends, causing all sorts of havoc, and getting into all sorts of trouble, while her mother is off trying to make money anyway that she feasibly can. Sometimes, this means selling cologne/perfume on the streets, other times, this means a little something more that Moonee doesn’t quite know about, but everyone around her does. Either way, the two try their best to make something of a lovely little life for themselves, given the current situation that they’re in, despite being only a few miles away from the Magic Kingdom itself. And one person who is also doing all that he can is the manager of the hotel, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). He too has been dealt a pretty crummy hand at life and is just doing all that he can to get by and also ensure that his tenants, that he tries not to get too close to, are safe and sound in their own little bundles of trash paradise.
Basically, it’s two-hours of misery and I loved almost every minute of it.
Actually, that’s a lie. The Florida Project isn’t as miserable, or as depressing as I make it sound; Sean Baker is such a talented film-maker that he knows how to keep downbeat, relatively disturbing material like this, not only quick, swift, and entertaining, but also make it all compelling, even when it doesn’t ever seem to have a real story-line or plot to work with. But that kind of works in the movie’s favor; Baker has always moved to the beat of his own drum and here, he gets the opportunity to tell whatever story, however he wants to.
And it’s why the Florida Project is his best movie so far. Sure, it’s a lot like his other movies, in that he focuses on a large part of society that has, unfortunately, been pushed away from the movies, or entirely forgotten about, but this one has so much heart, so much energy, and so much creativity, it’s hard not to get wrapped-up in all of it. Right from the beginning, you have an idea of where it’s going to go and end up, until, about halfway through, it switches itself up, decides to go down another path, and it’s just surprising.
Cause in a way, the Florida Project is a coming-of-age flick, that is very loosely following some form of a plot or story-line. Baker has done this in the past with all of his movies, where he doesn’t really concern himself with much in the way of plot, but instead, just relies on the strong characters and performances to hold things over. Occasionally, he’ll drop in a bit of story here and there, but it’s never anything too crucial to where it ruins the overall improvisational look and feel of the flick.
And it’s what the Florida Project specializes in.
Due to it being a movie about such a downtrodden and depressed group of people, it almost feels like it should be preaching a whole lot more and trying to say something about the way our society is forced to treat these people who we’d rather not admit to being alive, or taking up any space. Baker knows and understands that this is something the common, everyday person thinks and while he, as well as all of us, knows that it’s wrong, he doesn’t let it get in the way of this movie, or getting to actually know these characters. All of them could have easily been pedestals for Baker to jump off of, but he’s a much smarter film-maker than that, to just use compelling characters, for the sake of getting an agenda across – he knows that they are the heart and soul to a good movie and with the characters here, he gets a lot of mileage.
Which is to say that everyone here is great. But what’s really shocking is how very little everyone seems to be working from a script; this is something I thought to myself throughout the whole movie, but it wasn’t until I went home and actually checked-out interviews and realized that a good portion of the movie was improvised and sort of made-up, on the spot, with the actors making their stuff up as they went along. I’d expect this out of a pro like Willem Dafoe (more on him later), but with relative newcomers like Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, I was especially surprised.
That I never heard of them before now, doesn’t really matter. That they never actually acted before, is all the more shocking.
In the case of both Prince and Vinaite, these will be star-making roles, and with good reason: Both are great and go well beyond convention. Prince is a smart, sassy, and charming little girl who, just about every second, actually feels like a little kid who may be a little too smart for her own good, but a smart girl nonetheless. Vinaite, despite seeming like the typical cliche of the awful mother who doesn’t really care for her kid and just wants to smoke, drink, and have sex all of the time, eventually, shows us a real heart and humanity within this character. It’s something that you don’t expect with this character – all of the tattoos and piercings, I’ll admit, are more than enough to turn any person off immediately – but that’s sort of the point.
Baker isn’t making a movie full of gorgeously beautiful A-listers, who are risking their lives and careers by slumming it down. In fact, what’s crazy about getting Dafoe here, is that even though he is quite the known-talent, he’s also one of the uglier guys in the business (which I mean, in a good way). So yeah, even though Baker was able to nab a top-tier talent like Dafoe for his small, scummy indie, he was able to get one who fit and looked the part.
That said, Dafoe, like everyone else here, is amazing. He fully understands and sinks into this Bobby character who, you think is going to be a terrible, awful human being who just wants money and lots of it, but shows a true heart after a short while. He actually cares for his tenants and the hotel that he imagines, and while he’s stuck with the hard task of keeping everything all together and in-check, he sort of loves getting the pleasure of keeping this close-knit family, well, together. It’s a wonderful performance filled with subtlety and beauty, sometimes, both at the same time and it makes me happy to not just see Dafoe giving this really small indie a chance, but also working wonders for it, too.
Basically: Give him the damn Oscar already. Same goes for Vinaite. Hell, same goes for the whole movie. Give them everything!
America needs it. We all need it.
Consensus: Scrappy and gritty, the Florida Project realizes the harsh conditions in which it is set, yet, never succumbs to the inherent sadness and is instead, a beautiful, well-told, well-acted, and honest film about growing up, loving those close to you, and making your own little piece of paradise, the only way that you can. It’s sort of sappy, but the best kind.
9 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire