This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
Deriving its title from the codename used for Walt Disney World in its planning stages, “The Florida Project” is an arthouse film depicting the lives of people living in the shadow of that park. Specifically, the movie follows Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonie (Brooklyn Prince), who, with a community of others, take up permanent residence in one of the many motels–presided over by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager—lining the long tourist strip in Kissimmee, Florida, leading to Disney World.
It’s an austere film with a measured pace. Outside of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” over the opening credits (and a symphonic version in the bizarre finale), there is no music on the soundtrack. But the movie isn’t cold. It’s beautiful, even, due to some stunning cinematography. It’s shot on film, and the graininess complements the subject. Kissimmee is, basically, an unending strip mall that doesn’t lend itself to “wow”-inducing beauty, but the movie is punctuated with striking visuals: A rainbow stretching the entire length of the motel, itself popping off the screen with a ludicrously purple paint job; the sun streaming through billowing summer clouds (Florida’s mountain ranges); kids eating lunch on an impossibly large, gnarly tree, moss blowing lazily in the wind.
I’ve driven through these areas more times than I can count. I know these locations, and I’ve probably stayed at these motels, but I didn’t know about their more permanent communities, a fascinating substratum of people and places not often represented on film: drifters on the fringes of society, living in seedy motels, cobbling together a living while dazzling opulence is only a stone’s throw away.
But the allure of these outsiders peters out after a while. The movie goes to great lengths to show the day to day nature of their lives: Halley hawks wholesale perfume or stolen park tickets to guests at fancier hotels, and Moonie staves off boredom by spitting on cars, spying on sunbathers, conning money from strangers to buy ice cream. I appreciate the realism with which it’s all presented, but I can’t say I was invested; it all feels authentic but dramatically inert.
But I still strangely admired the flow of the film. The plot is like Jell-O that’s been taken out of the refrigerator too soon. The scenes all kind of ooze into each other, but there is a discernable form. Scenes that apparently have no connection do connect and build, developing a sort of story.
Acting-wise, Moonie and her friends come across as kids, real kids, not the precocious Hollywood version that we see so often, but their behavior begins to grate after a while–maybe there’s a reason Hollywood goes with their version. And as for Halley, her demeanor, her tattoos, all feel real and not the result of method acting or costume design. Bria Vinaite’s performance is almost too good, too convincing. Halley, with her petulance, temper tantrums, and refusals of responsibility (confronted with Moonie’s latest misbehavior: “Where’s the proof?”), is a child raising a child that made me cringe far too often.
That she becomes so contemptible doesn’t feel like the direct intention of co-writer and director Sean Baker. He portrays his characters without judgment and finds a decency in them, even Halley. Halley has an ease and friendliness around children not seen otherwise. She stops to carry her exhausted daughter on her back even though the police might be after them (“I can’t get arrested… again!”). Later, to celebrate the birthday of her daughter’s friend, she takes them on a mini-road-trip to watch fireworks on a hill close to, but well outside that famous theme park, presenting them with a candle-lit birthday doughnut.
And then, Willem Dafoe turns up as Bobby. He’s gruff but kind, strict but paternal, likable. He’s the only one paying attention to the kids in the motel. He puts up with harassment from his guests, dishes it back, but then still goes out of his way to help them. Dafoe’s performance is filled with humor and pathos, making Bobby the film’s most interesting character, certainly more interesting than the two leads. The movie might have benefitted from having him be the focus and shunting Halley-and-Moonie’s story to the side.
I’ve been wrestling with my feelings for “The Florida Project” for weeks now. Between the annoying leads and a narrative that never held my interest for long, I didn’t enjoy watching the movie. Sean Baker chose an intriguing locale, but he chose the wrong people to represent it. But dismissing the movie would be wrong. There’s something to it, a warmth, a place and time that’s brought to life with such specificity that I can’t shake it. And I’m not sure I want to.