Cinematic Releases : The Florida Project (2017) Reviewed

Everyday life is full of things that demand focus.  Jobs, families, tragedies, and hope are all concepts that every human deals with regularly.  Outside of our personal experiences, every other living being in existence is on their own journey, replete with their own struggles and victories.  Some groups are taken advantage of, while others simply become invisible.  Be it a man with a cardboard sign at an intersection or a struggling single mother in a dingy hotel.  Sean Baker's The Florida Project explores the latter, delving into a piece meal community of impoverished families living just beyond the fabled gates of Disney World.  While many films have examined generations in distress, Baker’s approach to the counterfeiting of the American dream is through the eyes of a child.  The result is one of the year's best films that is elevated by a strong ensemble performance, disarming visual compositions, and an engaging story.  

Moonee and her mother Halley live at the Magic Kingdom, an economy hotel for low income families on a crowded strip near Disney World.  What follows is a touching and tragic examination of childhood under the auspices of a mantle of invisibility, donned daily by those society has forgotten.  Chris Bergoch and Baker's script is a foul mouthed, impossibly real, and utterly respectful portrayal of those beneath the financial divide.  Life is presented as it is, never robbing the characters of their dignity, even in their darkest moments.  Bria Vinaite's exceptional performance as Halley defies expectations.  She bounces between audacious rebel and loving mother in an instant, an impossible feat that she performs with natural grace.  This is a complicated role that represents a complex, misunderstood, and often mistreated group of people within America.  Vinaite's furious pride and sorrowful resignation are heartbreaking in virtually every scene.  While her chemistry with Brooklynn Prince is perfect, there is always darkness chipping away at their fantastical happiness and it is Vinaite's understanding of this that allows the film to remain thoroughly entrenched in Baker's realistic presentation.  

Brooklynn Prince's supporting role as the unstoppable Moonee is outstanding, a testament to both Baker's delicate command and Prince's untapped potential.  Her scenes with the adults are potent, but it is in her interactions with the other young denizens of the hotel where she truly shines, demonstrating the utter fearlessness of youth.  Willem Dafoe gives one of the greatest performances of his career as the constantly harried manager of the hotel.  Dafoe is a legend with a portfolio full of memorable characters, but here he is at his most humane.  The ability of restraint he applies in every single scene is miraculous.  Whether facing off with mischievous children, surrogate daughters, or unsavory characters, his Bobby is a decent person, a middle of the road everyman who stands out as a knight errant in Baker's world of purple and gold prison bars.  Dafoe's ability to communicate the inner conflict of not getting involved in things he knows he cannot change will most likely garner him an Oscar nomination this year.  

Alexis Zabe's lush cinematography balances three simultaneous concepts.  The first is the gritty, American Honey-esque portal through which the characters view their situations.  These are poorly lit hotel suites, primal street parties, and day to day con games with unsuspecting tourists.  The palette is filled with deep reds and greens, highlighting the uncertainty of everything in focus.  The next is the candy colored dream world of tourist towns.  Pastel orange and lavenders are everywhere, symbolizing a dream of hope and stability, a place that none of the characters have ever been too.  This is the central dissent of Baker's opus.  While it could be perceived as heavy handed, it is an unfortunate reality that most viewers will never experience.  The destitute, and especially their children, are expected to labor towards notions and expectations that are placed upon them by those who can see the endgame, while they themselves can only imagine what it looks like. 

The final part of the visuals is the natural world of Florida, beyond the lights and cars.  Baker's compositions are captured by Zabe in a quiet, unobtrusive manner that allows the viewer to explore and discover along with the children.  A graveyard of abandoned tourist homes, a pasture filled with cows, and ancient trees populate the magical world of its precocious heroes, loomed over by breathtaking sunsets and impossibly blue skies.  As the film winds towards it conclusion, it is this sense of beauty that stays within the mind, a possible mitigation for the inevitable harsh realities of Moonee's story.  

In limited release now, The Florida Project is a marvel to behold.  Its painful ability to present the world the way it is will stick with the viewer long after its denouement.  Everyone has a story, everyone is struggling, and while darkness abounds, there are moments of compassion and love throughout and it is these moments that will ultimately turn the tide.  The important thing, the thing this monumental film begs from its audience, is patience and compassion for those who aren’t so easily seen.  

-- Kyle Jonathan