New York Film Festival Review: The Florida Project

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As far as portraits of childhood go, it doesn’t get much more authentic than The Florida Project. Sean Baker’s follow up to his exceptional Tangerine has its ear every bit to the ground as that film did, once again exploring the lives of people too little seen in cinema.

On the outskirts of Orlando, a small group of children, barely kindergarten age, turn a dingy motel—the only place their respective guardians can afford to pay rent—into an enchanted playground with adventure bursting at the seams. They’re led by Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince), who introduces us to herself by cussing out the owner of the car she and her friends were just caught spitting on. Her mother (Bria Vinaite), with her tattoos, lip piercing, and blue hair, mostly stays in her room, watching Moonee and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), her neighbor and friend’s child, during the day. But all these characters can’t help but get into trouble with the professional but fatherly management, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, terrific). He keeps the place as tidy as it can be and tends to his guests’ needs the best he can while keeping everything legal.

But the adults mostly play in the background to the kids, the heart and soul of the film. Much of The Florida Project is watching them play and interact with the world around them. The script barely feels written, and that’s maybe the film’s most valuable quality. With a seemingly heavy focus on improvisation, the young actors feel more like real subjects of a documentary than a written narrative. The result is a quick emotional resonance with their childlike wonder and the limitless range of their imagination, particularly through the endlessly charming lens Prince delivers, making herself a young talent to watch. Their guardians, for reasons that eventually become clear and ultimately distressing, have a very long leash on their kids, if there’s even one at all.

The kids may be blissfully unaware of their impoverished upbringing, but their reality weighs heavily on the film, as details are smartly placed to build and showcase the surroundings as damaging as they can potentially be. Rather than a round of mini golf or a matinee, it’s a neighborhood event when a house burns down, providing spectacle for both the parents and the kids.

And yet, as the story weaves in details and builds its world, it loses some of them in a rare technical snafu for such a well-made, low-budget film. The Florida Project often likes to assault our senses with sound and color, but the former can be overpowering, quite simply causing some of the intricate details, such as significant throwaway lines or the adult dealings in the background, to get lost in the crossfire. Information the film seems to want you to know gets obscured not because the story intends to do so, but because characters are talking over each other or the TV is blaring or a helicopter is passing over. While also a significant measure of reality, it’s a bit frustrating in moments where the film mistakingly refuses to let us absorb it.

But that’s mostly a nitpick. The film suffers a bit more from its elongated runtime, as many of its scenes are designed to be meandering to let the characters live and breathe as they normally would. It’s just that one or two of them probably could have gotten cut.

Still, these flaws are quite minor for a film that boasts genuine originality and high emotional payoffs. The Florida Project is designed to make audiences fall in love with it and then realize its harsh realities. This is an important film, exploring the homeless situation in the US, but also one that isn’t afraid to make you smile for endearing yet complicated reasons, an accomplishment similarly achieved in the comparable Beasts of the Southern Wild. With that, Baker blows past the phase of being a potential one hit wonder and becomes a director who’s style and overall catalogue is already worth talking about. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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