'The Florida Project' Is A Visually Striking Look At Adult Problems Through Childrens' Eyes

By James Jay Edwards
Released: October 20, 2017
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Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.

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Film Review
A couple of years ago, director Sean Baker solidified his reputation as an indie-filmmaker-to-watch with the groundbreaking Tangerine. Now, with all eyes on him, he follows it up with the equally impressive The Florida Project.

The Florida Project is about a week-to-week hotel in Orlando, Florida (right in the shadow of Disney World) run by a kindhearted man named Bobby (Willem Dafoe). A little girl named Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) lives there with her drug-addled mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). While Moonee spends her days getting into harmless mischief with her friends, Halley does whatever she can to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. Photo by Marc Schmidt, courtesy of A24.

There's not a real deep story to The Florida Project, it's more like a slice-of-life snapshot. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch provide a rough sketch of events, but, like Tangerine, The Florida Project has a loose, improvisational feel that lends an air of authenticity to the fly-on-the-wall drama. The narrative unfolds reluctantly, yet engrossingly, and while the major points are a tad predictable, they are presented in a way that is anything but stereotypical.

Although Dafoe is by far the biggest name draw, the real stars of The Florida Project are the kids. Moonee and her two pals (played by Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) are happy kids, almost overly happy, like obnoxiously so. They seem like real kids, and the serious adult problems that Halley, Bobby, and the rest of the grown-ups experience are filtered through the naïve innocence of the children. The kids in The Florida Project are annoyingly sweet, and they'll make the non-parents in the audience simultaneously want to have kids and never wants to have kids.

Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince, and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project. Photo courtesy cf A24.

In a lot of ways, The Florida Project is similar to Tangerine. It's got the same flawed-yet-likable characters, the same wonderful visual style, and the same street-smart sense of storytelling. It is a huge step forward for Sean Baker, however, and both critics and audiences alike should be excited for whatever he's got coming next.

Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. Photo by Marc Schmidt, courtesy of A24.
Generally, even when Willem Dafoe plays characters that are inherently good, they come off as a little creepy (see American Psycho and Platoon). His portrayal of Bobby is kind and generous, somewhat of a departure from what audiences are used to from him. His relationships with the other adults in the film are pretty much based upon how behind they are on their rent to him, but he comes off as genuinely protective and loving of the children, sort of a surrogate parent for them. Bobby is tough when he needs to be, but when the chips are down and the backs are against the wall, he cares about his tenants, both adults and children, and goes out of his way to help them out any way he can. It's great to see Dafoe in a role like this.

Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project. Photo courtesy of A24.

Aside from Dafoe, the other principals in The Florida Project are all unknowns - Baker actually discovered Bria Vinaite (Halley) on Instagram! The inexperience shows, but it also works in the film's favor, as it helps sell the observational, cinema verite style of storytelling. There are a handful of established actors in pop-in roles just for good measure, people like Macon Blair (Green Room) and Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), but Dafoe and the rookies do the heavy lifting in The Florida Project.
Much of the hoopla surrounding Tangerine was due to the fact that Sean Baker decided to shoot the entire movie on an iPhone with an experimental lens setup. For The Florida Project, Baker went in the other direction, enlisting Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe (Silent Light, Duck Season) and shooting on 35mm film. Some of the aesthetic choices carry over from Tangerine, such as the use of movement and depth of field to capture private conversations and observational moments. However, The Florida Project was shot on location in Florida, and the local landscape, with its distinct purple-pink-green color scheme, looks stunning on actual film. The Florida Project has a realistic photographic style with a surrealistic color palette, and that combination gives the film a visually striking style.

Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in The Florida Project. Photo by Marc Schmidt, courtesy of A24.

Release Date
October 20, 2017
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