[VIFF 2017] REVIEW: 'The Florida Project' is a slice of life, and it's quite wonderful

 Christopher Rivera and Brooklynn Prince in  The Florida Project , directed by Sean Baker.

Christopher Rivera and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker.

The Florida Project was one of the films I was looking forward to the most at VIFF, and it didn’t disappoint. The title is taken from EPCOT, which was a master-planned community envisioned by Walt Disney in the 1960s. Disney’s project was never fully completed, and the motels and attractions that surround it now serve as housing for those struggling to stay above the poverty line. Florida, by the way, has a higher than average poverty rate.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager at one of these motels, the Magic Castle, which includes a trio of precocious kids – Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) – and Moonee’s young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Taking place during the hot summers of Florida, Bobby does his best to keep the motel in a neat and orderly fashion, even though there’s a feeling of finality in his situation; he’s there for the long haul, and whatever bigger aspirations he may have had have long been abandoned. He’s the manager, security guard, bellhop, caretaker, janitor and do-it-all for the motel, and also a friend, an enemy and sometimes surrogate father figure for its inhabitants.

 Willem Dafoe stars as Bobby.

Willem Dafoe stars as Bobby.

The guests that give him the most headaches is the rebellious and truculent Halley, who often bends the rules as far as she can to get what she wants. There’s a level of intelligence in Halley that’s been honed through years of just trying to get by, and although she makes questionable decisions, she’s a loving mother to Moonee. Halley’s a prostitute, and Moonee is inevitably put in some precarious situations.

To say that Halley and Moonee are rough around the edges is an understatement, but their presence is delightful, and there’s definitely some guilty pleasure to be had watching them torment the kind-hearted and well-meaning Bobby, even if he may publicly deny how much he cares for them. Moonee is the heart of the film, and there’s a few scenes where the world is seen specifically from her eyes.

There’s one sequence where Halley takes Moonee to a nearby hotel and pose as the hotel’s guests so they can take advantage of the hotel buffet, and we see Moonee stuffing her face with berries and bacon – but just barely, because the camera is set at table level and all we see is Moonee’s body-less head stuffing her face and totally getting lost in the moment.

The characters are all rather crude, and even though writer-director Sean Baker filmed Tangerine on an iPhone and did the same thing here in the film’s final scene, there’s nothing crude about the film. The pastel colours of the Magic Castle turn it into a real-life Candyland, yet the tribulations the characters go through can be heart-wrenching and brutal. To say The Florida Project lacks a substantial or sophisticated plot is fair, but it also misses the point because it overlooks Baker’s brilliant execution in showing a slice of life.

 The action centers on a trio of impoverished kids living in a run-down motel.

The action centers on a trio of impoverished kids living in a run-down motel.

Like Moonlight, which is also set in Florida, the dramatic (and sometimes hilarious) story of people in The Florida Project is another entry that portrays the lives of people underrepresented in film. As I’ve pointed out in my review of Logan Lucky, there seems to be a gulf appearing in filmmaking – either you spend $100+ million on a tentpole franchise, or you spend as little as possible and hope it becomes something huge. Baker made the film on an estimated $2 million budget.

The Florida Project has garnered some awards buzz, and deservedly so. Prince is wonderful; she’s engaging and charismatic as the outgoing Moonee, and Vinaite, who was cast after Baker saw her Instagram photos, obviously draws a lot from her own personality to give Halley a very lively presence, and it is mostly through Halley that the audience experiences the ups and downs of the film’s characters. Dafoe, in one of his more understated roles, is very good, but I would hesitate to call him an awards season favourite.

The Florida Project gets four stars out of four.

 
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