Movie Review: The Florida Project

People living in colorful motel grow increasingly annoying as the summer drags on

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
With Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones

Summer vacation in Florida: time to let the unsupervised children go on a junior crime spree. The Florida Project tries to give a glimpse at another side of life, but it never answers the crucial question of why the audience should spend two endless hours getting to know the generally unsympathetic characters.

The title refers to the original concept name for Walt Disney World. Close to that famous theme park, there is a strip of cheap motels and souvenir stores where the film’s action take place.

While the motels should be for tourists passing through, actually many of the rooms are occupied full time by people and families who are down on their luck. The daily rent, when added up, is a bit steep, but these people live day to day and lack the means to actually rent a proper apartment.

Some things do work in the film. The main motel, called Magic Castle, and the rest of the settings are painted in alluring pastel colors that can’t hide the shabbiness of broken dreams. Most of the cast are newcomers, and they bring a sense of freshness to their roles, not unlike the non-actors in Italian neorealism of the 1950s.

And these characters have a chance to show that they have real issues and concerns, and are not just background figures as in most films.

The one experienced actor, Willem Dafoe, gives a brilliant performance as Bobby the motel manager, who has to be strict with the guests over some of the rules and at the same time be protective of them and the children who run around between the various motels. He is caught in a hard position, having to answer to the pragmatic motel owner but also show a human face.

Dafoe was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and he deserves the praise. It is one of his finest performances.

The main focus, though, is on three unruly children who won’t listen to anyone. They talk back and pillage the area with nonstop acts of vandalism and petty crime, which some critics have referred to as carefree childhood adventures.

Recently there was a viral video that someone shot on a phone during an eight-hour flight where one child screamed for the entire time and ran up and down the aisles, with just vague attempts made at getting the child to behave. Sitting through The Florida Project evokes the same feeling of being trapped.

Young actress Brooklynn Prince, about 8-year-old, has been hailed as a promising newcomer. She plays Moonee, one of the three annoying semi-feral children. It is not a bad performance, but the foul-mouthed, uncooperative role grows thin very fast.

Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) is another frustrating character. She is a scam artist who refuses to look for any work, and who does little to care for her child. When she is accused of being an irresponsible parent, she looks at her daughter and makes a joke out of it.

Bria Vinaite also makes an impression on the screen, but in end, she is just too unsympathetic. The audience, in the end, feels more for the people forced to have to be around her than they do for her.

In 2016, there was a similar film called American Honey, also largely set in motels with people on the fringes of society. The characters were more rounded and as a result, drew the audience’s attention. The Florida Project quickly becomes monotonous with its single-note approach.

The film also carefully avoids the elephant in the room. Florida has been caught up in several waves of meth, opioid, and designer drug abuse, Yet all the down-and-out characters are surprisingly clean, save for a few brief mentions of marijuana.

But many critics did like The Florida Project, and it did make it onto several top 10 lists, and director Sean Baker won some minor awards. He is known for his previous film, Tangerine, which was shot completely on an iPhone. Most of his films deal with people on the margins of society.

But The Florida Project can’t escape the feeling that it is a too neatly contrived fantasy about life on the edge, as unreal in its own way as the famous theme park down the street.

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