The few truths in life that you can count on: death, taxes, and a football player saying he will go to Disney World after winning the Super Bowl. Regarded as the Happiest Place on Earth, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project does not occur in the wondrous tourist attraction where millions flock annually; its setting is on the outskirts, in a ramshackle motel with flecked paint and occupants that have seemingly resigned themselves to the fact that this is the best life has to offer. Everything else is just a fairy tale.
Actually, when I attended a press screening of The Florida Project last fall, the comment I told a press rep afterwards was that it was the “cinematic cousin to American Honey.” That film chronicled a disenfranchised adolescent that runs away and travels across the Midwest with other runaway teens selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Andrea Arnold’s film was very much Cinéma vérité in its depiction of a generation of lost millennials.
Sean Baker, having already delivered the dizzying Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone, affords to us gritty realism of Kissimmee’s Magic Castle motel, a far, far cry from the one and only Magic Kingdom. This bittersweet tale revolves around a little girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who, with her less than attentive destitute mother Halley (Bria Vianite), lives in an eye-catching purple motel. (If by eye-catching you mean OMFG what is that!) It may be called The Magic Castle, but this rundown space is far from magical, home to many derelicts and vagrants, and anyone else living paycheck to paycheck.
The Florida Project takes a while to find its footing. Brooklynn Prince is a little charmer on account of cuteness but her questionable acts, like instigating a spitting contest at a neighboring motel (where loogies shower from a second floor balcony onto broken-down car below – eew!), shows a mischievous streak. Moonee and her co-conspirator friends were just having fun, though the car’s owner (and mother to one of the phlegm wads) would disagree. To make a point she ushers the little misbehaviors back to the purple monstrosity and reports to the motel’s manager, Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe). Bobby is well aware of Moonee and what she does for fun. His only option is to admonish her and have mother Halley take care of it, while also warning Halley again about a pending eviction if he catches her smoking in her room.
Halley is not Mother Superior or much of a nurturer; she can barely take care of herself. The hardscrabble lives of mother and daughter are documented in a series of situations – vignettes, to be precise. Moonee is an adventurer and the lack of parental guidance affords her and her friends to score free ice cream. Other fun activities include setting fire to an abandoned condo, and shutting off the electricity to The Magic Castle. Halley tries to hawk perfume and handbags at nearby country clubs, sometimes with Moonee as the closer – using her cuteness to reel in a fish (mark).
The mood and environment, though tough because of Baker’s Cinéma vérité style, is what will draw you in. The plot is held together by situations that run afoul, and Halley’s inability to be the caretaker that Moonee needs. It’s easy to forget that children feel impenetrable, fearless. They are easily awestruck by things that are new. But when the sense of wonderment and reality collide it presents a life that no one would envy. Sean Baker’s visual style paints a portrait of the downtrodden but in a way that it isn’t condescending to those who struggle on the day to day.
The Florida Project may be a work of fiction but there’s a little truth with every story. Willem Dafoe, who scored an Oscar nomination is good, but his presence can be distracting at times, taking you out of the experience that Baker is able to create with a cast of mostly non-actors. Brooklynn Prince is the star, maybe the breakout star of 2017, offering refreshing spontaneity, especially in the last scene that will both break your heart and make you cry in elation.
Going from iPhone to old-fashioned celluloid, the video quality of the Blu-ray is quite lush on account of the Florida locations used for the film. The color palate brings back memories of the purples and pinks of Miami Vice (the original TV series, not Michael Mann’s later feature film). The audio (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) is also strong with the center channel handling the bulk of the dialogue with some ambient nat sound whenever a helicopter takes off from the ground. Yes, The Magic Castle is weirdly situated near a Heli-pad.
This A24 release comes with three special features. There’s the obligatory bloopers and outtakes reel (2:46). Interviews with principal members of the cast and crew, including Sean Baker, Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, and Bria Vinaite clock in at nearly fifty minutes. For a cursory look at the making of The Florida Project is “Under the Rainbow,” a 22-minute featurette involving footage behind the scenes and topics ranging from location scouting, table reads, and how to corral unprofessional (and out of control) kid actors.
A24 presents The Florida Project. Written by: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. Directed by: Sean Baker. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, and Macon Blair. Running time: 111 Minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: February 20, 2018.
Tags: A24, Brooklynn Prince, Sean Baker, The Florida Project, Willem Dafoe