The Florida Project

17
Oct
The Florida Project

florida_projectSTARS4Few of the tourists who visit Walt Disney World will ever stay the Magic Castle Inn. The name seems to intentionally suggest the Magic Kingdom. It’s a roadside motel in Kissimmee Florida, located just minutes from the theme park but it’s not related in any way, shape or form. It’s painted hot pink exterior somewhat disguises its seedy atmosphere. Most of the tenants actually appear to be long-term residents enticed by extremely cheap rates. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a brash 6-year-old girl who lives there with her mother Halley. Moonee is presumably not in school at the moment. It is summer and so she spends her days hanging out with the children of the other extended stay dwellers.

Director Sean Baker’s debut was Tangerine, a little slice of life about folks on the fringes of the LA community. Pimps and prostitutes are not the kinds of people that we want to embrace, but his unflinching examination saw the humanity within a segment of society most people ignore. Like that film, The Florida Project details the unsavory life that percolates on the ragged edges of Orlando’s sprawling network of family-friendly resorts. “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s working title for his entertainment complex in the greater Orlando area. It would seem to be a tragic irony that an attraction as cheerful and wholesome as Walt Disney World is surrounded by less than grand living situations.

All of this is seen through the eyes of a child. Adults are very much a part of this story, but their reality is an alien universe shrouded in mystery to these kids. Our understanding of what is truly happening sometimes comes across as a bit clouded too. Our protagonist is Moonee, a rambunctious, almost vulgar, holy terror that is allowed free reign to explore the compound. Actress Brooklynn Prince is utterly natural, almost chillingly so. She does mischievous deeds with her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), a downstairs neighbor, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who lives down the road in another motel called Futureland. Despite their flaws, we care about these kids. The narrative grants their existence the same respect producer Hal Roach afforded to The Little Rascals. There’s a big difference though. The kids are outwardly cute in appearance but they sure don’t act that way. We see them cover a car with their spit in a game of target practice. They switch off the power to their entire building from the utility room. Later they accidentally burn down a foreclosed house after lighting a pillow on fire.

Halley (Bria Vinaite) is Moonee’s single mother, a foul-mouthed, tattoo covered, hustler. She sells perfumes to tourists on the street by day and receives gentlemen callers at night. Her parenting skills leave a lot to be desired. The filmmaker doesn’t ask us to sympathize with Halley, but he doesn’t impugn her either. I can appreciate the display of humanity in its many forms, but when she’s responsible for the welfare of a child, the script’s apparent lack of condemnation is somewhat disturbing. What helps is actor Willem Dafoe in the form of motel manager Bobby. He is a force of good in a sea of characters that aren’t. He actively puts his neck out to ensure the safety of these kids.

Director Sean Baker utilized the purity of cinema vérité when he created Tangerine in 2015 and he exploits a similar style again. Gone is the iPhone 5s cinematography. He’s shooting on glorious 35mm film this time around with a traditional camera, but the outskirts of Orlando is presented as anything but conventional. Sun-drenched vistas burst with the crisp colors that stand in stark contrast to a childhood troubled by a grim situation. Moonee’s environment is hardly ideal. However, this is all conferred without critique. The neglect of a minor should probably invite more condemnation.  The atmosphere remains surprisingly upbeat. Baker continues to employ an indie aesthetic. With the exception of Willem Dafoe, these are all unknown actors. Everyone from first-time actress Bria Vinaite — an Instagram discovery and “friend” of musician Drake — to actual non-actors utilized on location, Baker’s presentation has the feel of real life. It is that authenticity that allows us to understand these depressing conditions. Given the circumstances, one might wish for more righteous judgment, but Baker’s observational view is admirable too. Ultimately though he defers to the moral high ground. The emotional ending is a catharsis that is as welcome as it is heartbreaking.

10-12-17

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