|Scene from The Florida Project|
Deep in the heart of Florida lies Disney World. It's a place full of wonder and excitement. In a typical story, many people wouldn't even recognize the scenery that they drive by to get there. For director Sean Baker's The Florida Project, he decides to take a detour and explore the lives of people who live at a nearby motel. Unlike the House of Mouse, these people find joy in the simple things, such as spitting on cars and begging for free ice cream. These are the lower class dreamers who can't afford Disney World. Their journey is one full of humor and tragedy, and Baker's neo-realist approach to the story produces one of the most uncomfortable movies of the year with loathsome characters that undermine emotional stakes and create a movie that has plenty to say, but doesn't address it very well.
The story centers around Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is a little girl that gallivants with her contemporary version of The Little Rascals through the Florida town side. She is innocent, choosing to find joy in the juvenile pleasures of her youth, not caring how much motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) yells at her, or how much damage she actually commits. She is the quintessential brat whose audacity is more charming than her personality. Beyond that, this isn't like The Little Rascals. That is, unless Alfalfa committed arson and shut off a power grid for fun. These kids are low level pests who, depending on tolerance, are anywhere from charming hooligans to warranting a call from child services. They are aimless, but most of all they are happy.
Baker juxtaposes this youth with a vision of cynicism in the adulthood of grandmother Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose idea of parenting is to focus on the good and curse out the bad. With a criminal record, she skids through life trying to pull scams on local tourists while forcing Moonee to use her cutesy girl approach to selling knock-off merchandise. Halley is insufferable as a human, and is the central reason that the film becomes unbearable. She is almost too committed to the task of annoying the audience to the point of potential walk outs. In a way, it's definitive of her life, which feels rooted in barely avoiding prison by pissing off the friends who will put up with her. Even the Good Samaritan Bobby gets a raw deal, making his story into a "Book of Job" situation where nothing goes right and he's always having odd times.
Baker clearly wanted to make a film that explored the psychological turmoil of Moonee's life through two opposing adults: Halley and Bobby. On one side is an irresponsible figure who refuses to know any better, and then there's Bobby who is kindhearted and gives Dafoe one of his greatest, most warm performances to date. In some ways, it gives Moonee's behavior a pass, though it still thrusts new sympathy onto Bobby; a man who is stuck in this situation where he wants to do good, but has too many opposing forces to do so. Even then, he's arguably the most reliable and charming figure in the entire film. His gruff voice mixed with his sincerity makes any strict moments feel earned, making one wonder how much stronger the film would be if Bobby was a central figure instead of Moonee and her downward spiral of a mother.
The Florida Project is a film that prides itself on realism, which is fine. These unpleasant characters have a certain authenticity to them that will likely strike a nerve with audiences. It adds to the emotional tugging as happiness devolves into sadness, and becomes more tragic because of how preventative it all was. The issue will lie with how sympathetic audiences will find Halley's destructive behavior, which grows from bad to worse almost second by second. It may make Moonee's struggles seem more tragic, but both figures feel like they would be better off away from each other. This in itself creates a deeper tragedy, but one that feels more tolerable than prolonging their story.
Along with Dafoe's excellent performance, Baker's shining achievement is managing to turn this neo-realist story into a beautiful landscape. Every last inch of this Florida wasteland is planted with eye-popping images. The motel itself is a beautiful image worthy of a low rent Wes Anderson movie. Its purple hues compliment the scenery and make every small moment feel like a fairy tale. As much as the actual story is ugly and repulsive, it is beautiful to look at and manages to convey a contrasting beauty that is often unseen on screen. The only issue is that, like Baker's Tangerine, the characters are largely irredeemable and makes one wonder why they're worth spending time with. Baker doesn't sympathize them but humanizes them in a way that would be pushing the boundaries of tolerance even for the obnoxious child actors who are just as morally awful as the parental figures.
The Florida Project is a movie that succeeds at showing a story that most people wouldn't think to tell. On one hand, there's a reason that it's not told. It's not pleasant, nor does it make for provocative cinema. Instead, it's full of antagonism that strives for sympathy but lands in an emotional dead zone. What it has is an excellent moral core with Dafoe, who saves the movie by showing the struggles to maintain a motel's upkeep. He is the figure who has the most interesting moments. He creates a sense that there's more to Florida than cheap hood rats. Unfortunately, hood rats is what Baker likes, so hood rats is what he put to film. It's competent work, but why would anyone want to watch a story of a negligent mother (who deserves to be arrested) throw her life away? It's the type of questions that make The Florida Project seem like it's lacking something greater and more interesting, even in every day life.