THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Director: Sean Baker
Runtime: 110 minutes
Mostlyindies.com grading: A+
Do not let the garish color palette of Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project fool you; despite its Floridian setting, this is as neo-realist (and I’m talking about the kinds Vittorio De Sica, Luschino Visconti, and especially Roberto Rossellini produced in the 40s, 50s, and 60s) a picture as can be and for that, it is at a much higher level than the sea of indies being produced by the masses today. I’d even go to deny its inclusion in the genre; indie cinema can be a rather grey area where kitchen sink dramas and low budget stories get lumped together with tales of existentialism, horror, and romance.
Baker’s cinema, and I also include his breakthrough 2015 movie Tangerine which followed a pair of trans-women working the streets of an LA no one gets to see, fall under the former, Italian style. Subtract the colors in The Florida Project and you get something similar to The Children are Watching Us, or even Sciusia (Shoe-Shine), the latter filled with irreverent boys creating mayhem. The one thing separating these movies is this larger-than-life joie-de-vivre that carries these kids through their day to day. Their Italian counterparts emerge with their spirits crushed; here, Baker’s children are defiant to the very end.
The plot of The Florida Project is rather minimal in appearance only. In fact, it’s so minimal that it seems to be just a study of people in a forgotten little corner of the world as they go through their day-to-day activities. Set in the fringes of Orlando in what were at one time the equivalent of Choice Hotels or Best Westerns and have now devolved into weekly motels for people below the poverty line, We get introduced into its pastel universe via the three kids at the center of the story: Moonee (the superb Brooklynn Prince, who has arrived fully formed as an actress with a capital A), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancy (Valeria Scotto). Unschooled, they spend their days at play moving throughout the motels like a coven of mini-thugs looking for a thrill, causing all sorts of problems while their mothers scrape away just to bring food to the table. Moonees mother Haley (Bria Vinaite, also a force of nature, girlish, but a feral survivor), a waifish horror with shoulder-length blue hair and tattoos, is the least responsible, moving from hotel to hotel selling perfumes and scamming the unsuspecting. She has no sense of direction and could care less; she just wants a fix and will even use Moonee to get what she wants.
At the other end of this scenario, standing like an observer, is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who might just be the only and closest thing Moonee will ever know as a father. Early scenes don’t seem to give him a lot to do; as a matter of fact all he can do is to nicely ask Haley for the rent money, or repair the AC that the kids blew out while keeping the place bright and colorful. However, if you look closely into Bobby’s face there is a worn-out sadness living there, magnified because we don’t know who the man is other than his part in the movie. We don’t know how he got here, what his private life is like. We just know and see him hovering protectively around the trio, chiding their mostly useless mothers, and acting like any father would do: stern, but clearly loving and warm.
So as I said, the story is minimal, but if you look closer, you will see an arc developing. The actions at the start look like a preview. The kids get into mischief, cause a problem, clean the mess, and move on. The next event is a little more brazen, as is the next. When they unwittingly (and innocently) cross the line into crime, the film takes a subtle turn: dynamics are broken, Haley finds out Scooty’s mother doesn’t want her son hanging out with Moonee anymore and denies them leftover food from the eatery where she works, which puts Haley in a bind and hell-bent on getting even, acting out even against Bobby who for a chunk of the movie has let her go scot-free. You can sense a pressure cooker building in the film’s final quarter, here, a noose tightening around the characters. Nothing — not even this delusion of endless summer and arrested development — and actions bring consequences. The way Baker handles this is again, a writer-director in full control of his story who isn’t unafraid of delving into a moment of fantasy even when it’s clear that the gig is up, and everyone has to get out of the pool.
The Florida Project opens in limited theaters October 6.