As somebody who loves independent movies, I was very excited for The Florida Project, which is almost universally praised by critics and is getting a lot of good buzz going into The Independence Spirit Award and the Oscar. The movie is written and directed by Sean Baker, an exceptionally talented director who is responsible for one of the best small movies of 2015, Tangerine.
Without going into too much detail, the story is centered around lives of a young woman and her daughter, who are residents of an inn near Disney World, Orlando. The girl, Moonee, is portrayed excellently by the young Brooklyn Prince, while the mother, Halley, is played by first time actress and Instagram model Bria Vinaite. Both breathe life into their characters and make them real enough for us to sympathize with their predicaments and understand their actions, even when we do not agree with the things they do in the movie. Other actors like William Dafoe, who plays Bobby, the manager of the inn, or young actress Valeria Cotto, who plays Jancey, Moonee’s friend, also give terrific performances that add depth to the movie and make the characters more relatable.
Baker, who already showcases his talents behind the camera with films like Tangerine and Starlet, once again does a terrific job with the direction. The use of color is fantastic: the whole movie is so bright, vibrant and beautiful, which creates a delightful contrast with the rather grim subject matter the film deals with. Baker never shies away from filming ugly scenes, even ones he knows would make the audience squirm in their seats, and I admire him for that.
The Florida Project is an immensely powerful and poignant portrayal of a disenfranchised group of people that is so intricately told it sometimes makes the movie hard to watch. The quiet way Baker goes about telling their stories is marvelous and even a little bit disorientating to watch. While I was watching the movie, there was never a moment when I felt like I was being manipulated by his cinematic language into feeling any particular emotion. He isn’t trying to spread an agenda, nor is he trying to hammer home a specific message; he is just trying to present the lives of these people as is, without stigmatizing or maligning them, and let us form our own judgement about them.
Where the movie falters is in the story structure and editing. The movie’s pacing could have been improved. The movie is intentionally slow but not deliberately paced at all, which means that at times it is messy enough to interrupt the rhythm of the story and removing viewers from the movie completely, which is a shame because especially in movies like these, you want to be completely immersed inside the characters’ stories.
At the same time, Baker is too preoccupied with showcasing the lives of these characters that he forgets about the story all together. There are story elements that I do not understand: plot elements that are set up but never paid off, character arcs that are abandoned, characters introduced but never mentioned again. I do sympathize with Baker on this aspect: I understand that he wants to tell these stories as is, that they are not poetic or just, that they are ugly and incomplete. However, cinematically, it renders the story less compelling.
Furthermore, I sometimes find it difficult to empathize with some of the characters, especially the main character Moonee and her mother because of their choices in the movie, even though I understand how and why they decide to do it. For less sympathetic audience members, I can see how these two characters can diminish their experience with this movie: a movie can be particularly grinding when you don’t like the main characters. They are flawed and at times unlikable characters, but perhaps that is the point; they are humans at their most human, not the prettiest, not the most perfect, but real, and I admire Sean Baker for portraying them like that.
Despite the bones I need to pick with the movie, I would still recommend The Florida Project, especially to those who love arthouse theater, because it is a meaningful theater going experience that makes you think about your life and the lives of those around you. The movie successfully demonstrates Baker’s talent as a filmmaker, and I am excited to see what he can do in the future.
The Florida Project is now showing in Laemmle, Claremont 5.