The Florida project
Snubbed series: Movies & films that didn't make the cut but should have.
by Sarah Fischer
No film moment of 2017 quite compares to watching six-year-old, first-time-actor Brooklynn Prince shout the phrase “You stupid thot!” with such unbridled glee. Immediately, the world of The Florida Project comes into vivid focus. Our central character Moonee (Prince) is as compelling a protagonist as any six year-old would be—that is, hugely so. Her presence and humour become the guiding light of the film: every new image is exciting, filled with potential for spontaneity and mischief. In the heat of a central Florida summer, when school is out and the strip malls alongside the highway to Disney World are as magical as the amusement park itself.
Moonee lives with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who seems almost as childish as her daughter. Halley loves her daughter fiercely—no one could argue otherwise—but between her lack of steady income and her own vices, more often than not Moonee runs around unsupervised with other nearby kids, scamming tourists for ice cream and getting into all kinds of trouble. Circling these everyday adventures with a watchful eye is Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Bobby is the happily-tolerated manager of the Magic Castle Motel, where some underprivileged families, Moonee and Halley included, stay week-to-week. Not quite homeless, but not steady enough to have a permanent residence, a makeshift community emerges. Bobby’s arc threads the separate storylines together, weaving a tapestry of these individual lives. The camera often follows him through the open corridors of the motel, volleying greetings, jabs, and well-intentioned warnings to his occupants. Bobby and Halley in particular have an uneasy camaraderie—at times, he can be either a surrogate father or unofficial policeman, depending on how late her rent is that week. The kids taunt Bobby, but lovingly so—silently daring him to yell when their ice cream cones drip inside the air-conditioned lobby and giggling uncontrollably when they are inevitably ordered outside. Dafoe garnered the film’s sole Oscar nomination for his role—certainly well-warranted, though it is a shame only he received official recognition. As one of the few professional actors in the film, Dafoe strikes a perfect balance. He doesn’t outshine any of the performances around him, but instead manages to match the improvisational energy thrown at him, as loose and uninhibited as the child actors are—a difficult thing for a longtime, classically trained actor to pull off.
One begins, halfway through the film, to feel a kind of impending doom. Summer vacation always ends; sooner or later, the real world seeps in. The film’s exuberance becomes manic in energy, not disappearing but rapidly revealing itself to the audience to be a failing mechanism of hope. The final scenes verge on horror, and they unflinchingly depict the heartbreaking reality of the lives of so many Moonees and Halleys in the world. Director Sean Baker has proven himself to be perhaps our preeminent documentor of the fringes of contemporary American society. His previous film, 2015’s critically-acclaimed Tangerine, follows two transgender sex workers throughout one chaotic Christmas Day. Both in this case and in The Florida Project, Baker elevates the ordinary to extraordinary by the very nature of his choice to focus on particular people and environments. Tangerine was an odyssey for the unseen, also employing almost exclusively first-time or amateur actors. These films turn a trained eye towards the details and intricacies of unspoken lives, allowing each experience the significance it inherently deserves. No single life is more entitled to widespread recognition than another, and Baker’s burgeoning filmography is a testament to that.
For The Florida Project to be found missing from not only the major Oscar categories but also the technical categories—particularly Best Director and Editing—is disheartening. The film celebrates its subject matter in form as much as content. The freewheeling excitement of childhood is replicated perfectly; the sense of a world on the brink of discovery is imbued in every shot. Maybe it isn’t personal—maybe the Academy was genuinely compelled to include its upteenth Winston Churchill biopic instead of Baker’s sensitive, technicolor exploration of class and family. But in a time of growing recognition of the individual struggles within the vast expanse of American society, it seems pointed to shut this particular story out. The system may have left The Florida Project behind, just as it chooses to forget the film’s real-world counterparts. That doesn’t mean everyday audiences must as well.
Originally published 03/09/18