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1 review, 3 user ratings

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Florida Project, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite the happiest place on Earth."
4 stars

The last few scenes of "The Florida Project" aren't quite completely different from the rest of the movie, but writer/director/editor Sean Baker bookends what is arguably the film's most simply devastating moment with shots that feel show the filmmakers' hands in a way the rest of the movie doesn't. It's an odd choice, but an understandable one - how do you end a movie that buries its structure so far under its surface? - and certainly not one that undercuts what an unusual experience this movie is.

It's told from the perspective of Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a Kissimmee motel, spending most of her time running around the area getting into mischief with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky, making a new one in Jancey (Valeria Cotto) while being punished for their last bit of troublemaking. It's not quite idyllic even if Moonee can't really see how Halley's position is getting more precarious by the week, but the motel's manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) looks out for them as much as he can without being an actual babysitter.

It must be somewhat terrifying for a filmmaker to place so much of a film in the hands of someone as young as Brooklynn Prince, and equally as easy for outsiders to second-guess it, speculating that as a result the film must be all improvisation, or that it's a case of perfect casting rather than actual talent. Whatever the case may be here, though, Prince is a joy to watch, contributing a boisterous energy level that certainly comes off as authentic from how Moonee doesn't quite know which words she's going to emphasize until they're out of her mouth or how she runs like she's throwing herself at something. Moonee blurts things out without ever sounding like she's doing it for effect - Prince is probably not so potty-mouthed in real life, but she certainly makes one believe that she's Halley's daughter.

Halley doesn't seem to get talked about much when people mention The Florida Project - the audience isn't really supposed to like her, and she plays into a lot of the worst stereotypes of single mothers and people on government assistance; folks are not going to get a lot of the insight they want from watching someone they might easily write off. But she's as crucial a part of the movie as anyone; Baker, co-writer Chris Bergoch, and actress Bria Vinaite imbue her with the same sort of immaturity and hair-trigger as Moonee, and it's hard to miss just how young she is. It's never something that feels like it comes close to letting Halley off the hook, but they create moments of surprising empathy; they show that something may be generally wrong with the situation without ever letting Halley off the hook.

It's easy not to give much thought to what goes into Halley both because her arc is subtle, hidden behind what Moonee is doing, but also because Vinaite is enough of an unknown that one doesn't have a baseline. Like the kids, this may just be good casting; it's not like Willem Dafoe, who is both playing against type as the mostly-mild-mannered innkeeper and adjusting easily to working in this verite-style film, becoming so much a part of its world that the fact one has seen him doing more classical work in many other things seldom derails just how invested one is in this utterly convincing bit of realism.

Baker's skill at getting right down on the ground and creating something that seems authentic and not dictated by what a writer wants the characters to do is this film's greatest strength but also arguably something that can cause it to stumble. He's great at generating these engrossing, fly-on-the-wall moments that put the audience in the worlds of people they may not often give much consideration, and by the time the film reaches its end, it's very clear how what may have seemed like stand-alone scenes in some cases build an actual story, not as a surprising revelation but maybe as something Moonee will piece together later. Having a story pieced together in retrospect can make for a fair amount of time when what's happening isn't exciting in the moment, especially if there's not a whole lot of new discovery at that point.

But, then, it's tough to wind down movies that are more about a situation than a story, and Baker probably does the best he can to give the film a conclusion without wrapping things up in a way that betrays the feeling of just watching what people do and not a plot. And since the experience is the point, Baker, his cast, and the crew deserve far more praise for getting viewers into this place than any trouble getting out of it.

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originally posted: 01/14/18 15:29:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/27/20 Martin The final shift in tone came off silly. Abrupt pullback from an emotional payoff. Great tho 4 stars
3/11/18 M Great 4 stars
11/12/17 Orpy Not that great but worth a look. 3 stars
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  06-Oct-2017 (R)
  DVD: 20-Feb-2018

  10-Nov-2017 (15)

  21-Dec-2017 (MA)
  DVD: 20-Feb-2018

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