The Florida Project has the precision of a documentary, the grittiness of a kitchen-sink drama, and the feel-good vibes of a coming-of-age flick. It sees the world from a kid’s perspective, which is full of wonder and excitement. I have a lot of praise for this film, but I would like to enforce that The Florida Project has one of the most frustrating narratives I have ever seen. And I’ve seen A LOT of unorthodox movies, so I don’t so that often.
The first hour moves at a booming, unhurried pace, with a tone that’s quite light. Then it becomes a deep study of the lives of lower class people struggling to make ends meet. We follow a bunch of young children who live in a cheap Florida motel, managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a tough guy with a heart of gold. These kids spend most of their summer days running wild, causing trouble and mooching tourists for money.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a care-free six-year-old is the primary focus. She’s become comfortable in her lack of supervision and enjoys the freedom, but is oblivious to her real deprived circumstance. Moonie’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is out of work and having trouble paying the rent. As much as she loves her daughter, Halley is a terrible parent. She’s a drug abuser and slightly unhinged, who seems to get a kick out of “living on the edge”. There are chilling moments as Halley and Moonie try to get by.
The way the film becomes more serious is fierce and gripping. I found the change of mood highlights that Moonee’s giggles, games and free reign can’t last forever. Even when Moonee revels in her idyll, there’s always a hanging shadow of danger. While the film is positive and enlightening, it’s very critical of the system that victimises these people. The Florida Project is dedicated to the underclass, making it a refreshing contrast to the plutocracy we see all around us.
Writer-director Sean Baker has clearly put a lot of heart into this film, but I’m not going to have a rose-tinted view of The Florida Project. Underneath its colour and sunshine is an uneven, maddening narrative. It has a freeform structure with abrupt changes and the effect is just plain annoying. It made me start to seriously wonder what story is actually being told.
I understand it’s an observant film, driven by themes and realism, but I would have appreciated a little more context and sense of focus on a particular point. Such lack of focus holds the film’s messages back to some degree. In short, The Florida Project has plenty to say but doesn’t handle its issues well enough. These issues tend to hang over the film and never get properly addressed.
On a technical level, the film is well-made. The performances across the board are exceptional, too. Moonee and Halley can be irritating, yes, but their interactions, behaviours and dialogues, are very naturalistic. Dafoe is great as Bobby. He’s the most likeable and sincere figure in the entire film, making me wonder how different the film would have been with Bobby as the main character. But that would have been too easy. Besides, these unpleasant characters strike a nerve because you can imagine them out there in the real-world causing all kinds of chaos.
If only the punches could better connect than this could have been a great film. I did enjoy watching The Florida Project, but I felt so much more could have been done with the characters and the situations. It’s a still a good movie that’s worth watching, but there were a lot of missed opportunities. This might sound like a cop-out, but I’d give it a 3.5 out of 5. Give this film a shot but manage your expectations.
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Stars: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinate, Willem Dafoe
Run Time: 111 minutes.