The Florida Project

by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 6, 2017

'The Florida Project'
'The Florida Project'  

Sean Baker's beautiful, blissful and vibrant ode to childhood, "The Florida Project" is one of those rarer cinematic works that doesn't settle for merely existing on a screen. This film is more than sounds and colors and performances being reflected back at us; it's an entire world, fully realized, through which our souls become penetrated by compassion and changed for the better.

Baker, whose filmography includes 2008's "Prince of Broadway," 2012's "Starlet" and 2015's breakout, shot-completely-on-an-iPhone indie hit "Tangerine," has slowly proven himself as one of the most sincerely empathetic filmmakers working today. His films transport us to worlds in which we are unaccustomed and inject us into unfamiliar lifestyles, creating an effect where we at once become both an observer and a participant.

"The Florida Project" is perhaps the filmmaker's greatest example of this. Baker, and co-writer Chris Bergoch, have crafted through their screenplay a genuine universe that is effortlessly lived-in and entirely understood. Baker, with kind and curious eyes, captures this world in such a way that when the credits finally hit the screen, I felt a ferocious whiplash upon my return to reality. We spend just under two hours in the cosmos of "The Florida Project," but it feels like we've witnessed a lifetime.

I loved spending time with these people, their daily routines spent within the confines and perimeters of the Magic Castle Motel in Orlando, Florida. With its brightly-purple walls and eclectic occupants, this "castle" sits in the shadow of a kingdom; more specifically, Disney World, where tourists spend thousands to play out their fantasies while the more impoverished tenants of Magic Castle are hustling to get through the day. Dollars and deals define their messy and unpredictable quotidian, a chaos mirrored and amplified by the like-clockwork roar of tourist-targeting helicopters taking off from a port next door. This scrappy day-to-day is especially prevalent when it comes to the film's primary focus, a mother-daughter duo who call the Magic Castle their home.

Halley (Bria Vinaite) is the type of person that many people, too quick to judge, would see on the street and immediately dismiss as white trash (or worse). Her body is a canvas of vibrant flower tattoos across her arms, torso and legs, her wardrobe often consisting of cutoff jeans and skimpy tops. She speaks in a dialect of brazen attitude, an outward defiance that seems to scream out, "Look at all the fucks I do not give." However, Halley's rebellion is balanced by a clear devotion to her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is the true protagonist of a film that basks in the warm glow of childhood innocence and fantasy.

So much of "The Florida Project" exists within the juvenile world of Moonee and her friends, which cerebrally snapped me back to my youth in ways I haven't experienced since Richard Linklater's 2014 "Boyhood." Moonee and her friends, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spend their summer days voyaging around the Magic Castle Motel and its outskirts -- hustling vacationing families for a few bucks to share an ice cream cone, aggressively competing in a game of hide-and-seek, sneaking into the motel's maintenance room and shutting off the power to the entire community. This youthful abandon is captured through rich, vibrant imagery and energetic editing, reflecting the vividness of life that sadly seems to fade as we age. "The Florida Project" releases the floodgates of memory for these emotions to come rushing back, from its opening moments all the way to an abrupt-yet-perfect deus ex machina ending that encapsulates the movie's sentiments in a fantastical, joyous whirlwind of feeling.

While Baker's direction is spot-on here, so much of the magic within this film is conjured through its sublime performances and marvelously observed moments that exist within the cracks of major conflicts. First-time actors Vinaite and Prince are spellbinding in their respective roles. (You'll see some use the term "non-actors," which is a dismissive misnomer that discredits these richly textured performances). The entire ensemble is wonderful, with every character fully defined, regardless of how minimal their screen time is. (MVP is Sandy Kane as a Magic Castle tenant named Gloria who refuses to conceal her leathery bosoms while sunbathing by the motel pool).

One of the film's most singular performances comes from Willem Dafoe as the manager of Magic Castle -- at once a bill-collector, a fixer, father, a guardian, a mentor and a reassuring hand on the shoulder. This is a performance abundant in its earnest authenticity, an opportunity that Dafoe seizes and turns into the role of his career. I don't even want to discuss any of his major scenes in detail, because they're so profoundly moving while they're happening that I wouldn't dare spoil the mixture of chills and warmth I felt during that actor's most arresting moments. Oh, and he's also goddamn hilarious.

As is much of "The Florida Project," a very funny movie that is also sad, uplifting, elegant, exciting and countless other adjectives often used to describe masterpieces like this one. Six films in, and this is Sean Baker's opus. However, I get the feeling we're only seeing the beginning stages of a career that's destined for greatness. Allow this film to wash over and cleanse you. This is empathetic cinema at its very finest.