By Brad Haynes
The Florida Project
★★1/2 out of ★★★★
As The Florida Project begins, anyone who has ever lived in Central Florida will immediately sense that it was filmed locally. You see it. The colors. The sky. The onscreen feel of the thickness of the air. It’s all captured brilliantly by director of photography Alexis Zabe.
And the local landmarks. Orange World. Twistee Treat. They’re all there.
If only the story were as authentic as the cinematography.
At first glance, the film’s title, The Florida Project, looks as if an actual name for the movie was never settled on. The Florida Project, however, was the working title of our local theme park that would eventually be known as Walt Disney World.
And the film of the same name sets its action just on the outskirts of the “happiest place on earth,” where things are far from happy. It’s just that the film’s junior residents of real-life Magic Castle budget motel in Kissimmee are blissfully unaware that they are living in abject poverty, with parental influences that are hardly positive.
Winter Springs resident, 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince, stars as Moonee, the foul-mouthed ringleader of a gang of children that includes Jancey (winningly played by pint-sized Kissimmee resident Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (young Christopher Rivera, who was actually discovered as a resident of the real-life Magic Castle motel).
Quickly bringing to mind the classic Little Rascals episodes, the children are fearless, thumbing their noses at authority and apparently unaware that their surroundings would be viewed by most as squalor. Unsupervised, a typical day finds them wandering off to an abandoned condo development where they set a fire, creating imminent disaster. To the audience, this is unnerving. And the parents and guardians of the children for the most part are not only absent, but unaware of the tragic consequences that could so easily befall their children.
Moonee’s mother Halley (played by Instagram find Bria Vinaite), is the most clueless of all. A heavily tattooed vagabond who makes her living scamming tourists and selling her body, Halley seems to maintain an emotional maturity only slightly more advanced than her young daughter.
It is only world-weary motel manager Bobby (an exceptional Willem Dafoe) who seems to be truly looking out for the children. Dafoe represents the father figure the children seem to be sorely missing, yet even he is ultimately unable to make things right.
It’s not that Moonee’s mom doesn’t try at times, she just doesn’t seem to have any idea how to do any of it safely. To celebrate one girl’s birthday, Halley rounds up the girls and hitchhikes to an empty lot where they can lay down under the stars, light a birthday cupcake, and watch the fireworks erupting over the Disney parks.
Director Sean Baker, whose breakout film Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone, ups the production value here, with the entire film captured on glorious 35mm film (except for the film’s fantastical ending which once again employs the iPhone camera for necessary guerrilla film making tactics). From the vibrant colors, to scenic composition, the film is beautiful to look at, even if the situations in which the characters find themselves often times are not.
The film definitely shines a light on a segment of our local population that are often times ignored, but that doesn’t necessarily make for characters we want to see on the big screen. And as frustration over the horrific decisions Halley makes during the film continue to build throughout, the film’s ending seems to be the only way things may even possibly get better. At least, here’s hoping.
The Good: The film is beautifully shot, with some amazing composition and vibrant colors creating images which resonate.
The Bad: It’s hard to fully get behind these characters, even the children.
Final Word: The Florida Project explores a portion of the Central Florida transient population rarely seen on film, serving up a disturbing look at an alternative childhood.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite. Directed by Sean Baker.
Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.