I live in a very weird bizarre limbo attitude with Sean Baker’s latest film The Florida Project. Like real Mr.-Krabs-meme type of deal. On the one side of it, the majority of Florida-based critics I had been hearing from leading until its availability to me on the tip of that terrible state, Miami, have been… alarmingly hostile*. Including many friends whose opinions I not only trust, but who had a lot more enthusiasm and praise for Baker’s previous film Tangerine. I did not share that same love for Tangerine (partly because it toes the line between laughing at its characters and laughing with its characters salvaged by two phenomenal leads, partly because it’s ugly as hell), so it only aided my hesitancy to see The Florida Project.
Meanwhile, those critics’ antagonism towards the movie is drowned out by the mountains of praise the film has ben receiving since its premiere at the 2017 Festival du Cannes and its continued run in North America, essentially securing at the very least a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe and there’s still enough time in the year for A24 to ride that good will to get either The Florida Project or Lady Bird even more nominations (anything but The Disaster Artist, please). And far be it from me to always ride with the majority opinion, but I like to think there’s actually a reason when people seem to really like a movie.
That movie being a slice-of-life-in-poverty through the perspective of wild and mischievous six-year-olds, not unlike the Our Gang series of short films from the early 1930s that get a special thanks credit. This particular gang of little rascals isn’t a large one, beginning with just Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) who live one floor away from each other in the Magic Castle hotel in Kissimme, Florida, and early on rounding itself up to include Jancey (Valeria Cotto) from the Futureland hotel across the street after one of spitting on and then cleaning her mother’s car. Apparently Mooney’s license to explore with her friends is enabled by her financially unstable and immature young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker and Chris Bergoch’s script spends most of its 115 minutes observing the hotel residents and the events alongside the kids, but only slowly developing a narrative involving Halley’s volatile lifestyle intruding on Mooney’s wide-eyed wonder.
So, where do I stand?
I dunno. I think it’s mostly ok. There are two things about The Florida Project I feel strongly about and they’re both on the opposite sides of my reaction spectrum: I love Dafoe’s performance’s as the hotel’s manager Bobby, a character’s that’s just an occasional satellite to the story full of humane frustration of the gang’s hijinks but also obligatory paternal warmth in understanding their youth and vulnerability. His Oscar chances look promising and I can’t say it’s undeserved, making the most out of every small moment he appears in such as dealing with a predatory old man or amicably moving a group of Sandhill cranes off the property or failing to talk with his son.
Meanwhile, there’s the thing I really hate about The Florida Project, which happens to be the ending so I can’t be as descriptive about it except in saying it felt like an extremely dishonest moment and looks no less ugly than any shot in Tangerine, though there’s also the logistical answer of why The Florida Project chose its look. A scene isn’t made or broken by one scene ideally, but you do pick your ending note for a reason and Baker’s choice of note for The Florida Project feels disastrous and kind of confirms the naysayers’ accusations of exploitation.
It is very tough for me to hold exploitative nature of the film preceding that ending against it, for very shallow reasons of mine. The Florida Project IS poverty porn but in a visually pleasant way. Florida is the fucking worst, I feel qualified to say after living most of my life at this point in the state, and the Orlando area is just grossly tacky and overcrowded with tourists. Magic Castle and Futureworld are the most normal buildings we see all through the film and they’re both sickly purple concrete constructs in a sweat, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe doesn’t see that. He sees a big vibrant block color interrupting serene glade horizons capturing the light so softly, you’d think it’s fragile and defining the blues and greens and violets. He sees an assuring geometry and symmetry to the floors and doors from the exact right angle, like relaxed clockwork.
And because Zabe sees it, it’s so clearly translated into how the kids themselves see Kissimmee and in turn how the audience is stuck visualizing it. This sort of transformation of a soft serve shaped ice cream booth into the most miraculous sanctuary from the truth of Mooney’s living situation is exactly where The Florida Project hits the target on its ideal. It’s unfortunate that at times the movie sometimes makes decisions that pull away from her perspective in an untethered manner. The most obvious bit is a moment between Bobby and his son (Caleb Landry Jones), but the moments that really grate on me are the ones focused on Halley, who turns out to be so much more shrill than any of the kids possibly could be. Especially when the film takes a character turn with Halley that makes it impossible to sympathize with her in the final act of the film, even while it’s desperately asking for us to feel so. Which only butters me up into being frustrated and annoyed by the ending to the point of asking “What the fuck was that?” as the credits rolled.
But up until that point, The Florida Project proves itself to be quite a success at the things Sean Baker wanted to capture. It’s not the cleanest tone and it’s not a game-changer (the return of child-centered realism isn’t brand new. Beasts of the Southern Wild was less than 5 years ago), but something that might have earned my respect and admiration to the level of Tangerine. It’s not much, but it’s something and as The Florida Project has proven both in content and in reception, not much can be the world to the right eyes.
*To be quite honest, the majority (but NOT entirety) of those people are from South Florida and we are decidedly not some unimpeachable authority on Central Florida, no matter how many times we went to Walt Disney World.