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Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: THE FLORIDA PROJECT marks a new high-point for Sean Baker

2015's Tangerine, Sean's Baker's big breakthrough, best known as "that movie that was completely shot on an iPhone" was a visual and emotional wonder that was ever so close to finding itself in serious awards contention. Sadly, its narrative heft did not quite match the film's directorial prowess and the strength of its central performances (that bit with James Ransone is a particularly sore, meandering spot). But we all knew that Baker was something truly special, and likely had a major work in his backpocket ready to go at some point in the near future.

Who knew it would only come two years later?

With The Florida Project, Baker tackles another story rarely told on the big screen, this time in the form of the culture that resides on the fringes of the world's most popular tourist destination. Taking place within the confines of an actual hotel right on the outskirts of Walt Disney World in Orlando, the director crafts the story of Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince), a six year old who lives with her single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) within this extended stay lodging. Moonee and her pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), basically run amok within the hallways and even the residences of the Magic Castle, while at the same time Halley - basically out of work - goes out every night with her close pal, and Scootie's mom, Ashley, also a single parent and resident at the fairly shoddy establishment.

Both Moonee and Halley are two sides of the same coin in many respects, both displaying a carefree attitude regarding authority and their own actions - they parlay a sort of independence that would be refreshing if it also wasn't so painfully self-destructive. Halley, a caring mother in her own way, consistently skirts the law via solicitation and other illicit means just to scrape together enough rent money to pay for that week's lodging. The effect on Moonee's own development seems fairly palpable, as being raised in that sort of laissez faire environment turns her into a bit of a tornado of rambunctioness - a frame of mind that will indeed lead to some truly bad decision making on her part and cause a downward spiral for both she and her mother in a way that cannot be held off any more.

From that description, you'd think this was a serious and depressing drama, but in truth, Baker infuses The Florida Project with the same liveliness that flowed throughout Tangerine. These down on their luck folks are often very funny, and the situations they find themselves in, despite how dire the circumstances, never really lose that sense of positivity, up till the closing minutes. It's hard to watch Moonee call one of her neighbors a "ratchet bitch" and not be both aghast, but also guffaw at the sheer audacity of the act. In its way, Baker has crafted his own look at delinquency and the harsh realities of the vicious cycle of poverty in a very Truffaut-type fashion. 

There's no stretch required to imagine Halley may very well have been exactly like Moonee as a child, and it's very possible Moonee may grow up to face the same challenges as Halley, both in terms of class and personality. At the same time, it's also a pretty magical look at the lengths a mother will go to in order to ensure her daughter's happiness and security within her own loving arms. The emotional moving pieces on display are really incredible, and are all the moreso when thought about in retrospect.

Speaking of, this is a cast devised mostly of unknowns, local actors, Instagram stars, and other areas of media than the traditional Hollywood process. The big exception to that (give or take what are basically cameos by Caleb Landry Jones and Macon Blair), is Willem Dafoe in what is some of his best work in years, and that's really saying something given his high quality dependability as a character actor. Dafoe is kind of the third leg of the film's triad, playing Bobby the hotel's manager, someone who is trying to make the best of a pretty tough employment situation and a rather persnickety owner. Bobby is generally the target of everyone's frustrations at the Magic Castle, and is usually the person most at the receiving end of Halley and Moonee's abuse or the one having to chase the former down for rent and any other issues that seem to never stop arising. Dafoe really makes a meal of this character, playing him as a genuinely good man, who wants to do a great job despite working in what is basically a dump. He even has a nice push and pull in his relationship with Halley that comes across as pseudo-father figure-ish, though just so without it ever veering into outright friendship or anything approaching affection. A difficult needle to thread, but Dafoe's wry performance presents an astounding character that you'd love to get to know even more about and the morsels that Baker tosses our way are tantalizing. An Oscar caliber performance for sure.

But let it not be said that Dafoe is the only standout of the film, as both of its stars, Prince and Vinaite are real finds. I spent the entire movie wondering where I had seen Vinaite before especially - as it turns out I hadn't, but in the way she inhabits Halley, there's a sense of authenticity that I'm not sure could have been possible with a big star. Vinaite, through her sheer magnetism, clearly has some level of understanding of the world of someone living in poverty though surrounded by what is basically trash culture. It's a strange, and tragic, dynamic, and it's the kind of performance that I'm not sure can be replicated in the future; but as it unfolds in front of you, it's a star burning quite brightly.

But again, the lion's share of what makes The Florida Project work so well lies on the shoulders of Baker himself. Corralling a number of disparate factors: working out of a real, operating hotel, honing a number of performances from actors of varying experience, and crafting a powerful script in order to tell a story rarely told into a stunning portrait of life on the margins in one of the keystone cities of American life. A sumptuously shot, 35-mm experience that feels utterly lived-in and real, but never loses its cinematic verve; it's a film that will stay with you, both in its unflinchingness and light-hearted touch. It's one of the best of 2017.

The Florida Project opens exclusively at Regal Tara Cinemas in Atlanta on Friday October 20th
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