The Florida Project



11 November 2017| No Comments on The Florida Project     by Sean Chavel


Like “sex, lies & videotape,” “Pulp Fiction,” “In the Company of Men” or “Lost in Translation,” The Florida Project is a major touchstone in independent cinema, reminding us that indies can bring truth and realism in ways that Hollywood cannot without being phony and synthetic. The director is Sean Baker, who after three films I already have an ardent admiration and devotion for. “Starlet” was not a complete success for me, but there is an hour of perceptive material in there as it relates to its porn star protagonist who is in it for the paycheck and not much interested in sex on or off the set, yet craves connection with somebody who is genuine. “Tangerine” was a real eye-opener, shot entirely on iPhone (and yet the colors are bursting, luscious), it followed one day in the lives of transgender hookers working off Hollywood Boulevard, and it was a brilliant, raucous tragicomedy. With what is easily one of the best films of this decade, “The Florida Project” explores lives at the poverty line, of people living day-to-day at a skeezy hotel called the Magic Kingdom for thirty-eight dollars a night, while a few miles down lies the enchanting promise of Disney World.

The punkish blue hair-dyed Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a twenties-something mom who is really just a kid defying twenty-first century establishment, raises her seven-year old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who pretty much bounces around in mischief to kill the hours. Everybody in the film exists outside the realm of Hollywood casting, and the camera whizzes past a lot of peculiar, if outlandish people. There’s one movie star in the film, and that’s Willem Dafoe as the manager of the motel who gets to know Halley and Moonee a lot more than he wants to. Dafoe, it should be said, is pitch-perfect as the blue collar hard-worker Bobby who takes the upkeep of the motel very seriously, and sometimes has to work as a principal, referee, and arbiter between the quarreling troublemakers that make up the motel.

Baker’s on the fly approach is documentary-like in its probe. I counted four “scripted” scenes in the film that sounded like words off the page, but even those were compelling and flawless – it’s a facetious opinion of mine, since the whole film is scripted but it goes far beyond in that when it comes to the spontaneity and authenticity of every scene, whether it is Moonee and her friends trying to collect money from strangers to buy an ice cream cone or romping through an abandoned apartment building and lighting things up in the fireplace.

There’s a queasy scene where an over-the-hill pedophile is soliciting a group of children, and Bobby goes in to intercept – he has to be patronizing because the pedophile hasn’t done anything (to that point), but also make it clear that he is never allowed back on the premises. I said over-the-hill to describe this predator, and I make a point that a scene like this is inserted – most often in other movies – for quick gritty shock value. But usually in a Hollywood message movie you would get a clean-cut, suave guy who is actually a pervert. In this film, well, Baker shows you what a pedophile pervert really looks like. And that’s more skin-crawling, as well as enlightening, as anything Baker could have done with the scene (and what Dafoe does to expel this creep is genius improv, too).

How scary real is “The Florida Project?” Well, I cannot tell you how much Vinaite as the mother is acting. With rose and vine tattoos stamped all over her body, and a lip piercing to go with that, it’s a revelation to see not a trained actress but a genuine article from the lower rungs of America in the center of a film. She comes up with daily scams to sell first “discounted” perfume to tourist, then park passes, to pay rent and feed her child. In one scene, after she has hit it “big,” she goes on a shopping spree with her young girl to buy fun plastic jewelry. But at a certain point, she cannot keep that up when a downwards economic trend happens. There’s no doubt she loves her child, but she goes into hostile tantrums with the other adults in the world while her daughter watches (Bobby is a hardhead with her too, but he does what he can to push her to do the right thing – not that Halley reliably listens). And Moonee, as you can see, is obviously without an education, or without freedom herself since she has to find ways to beg for food or make friends with the right people that can offer her toys.

Florida Project_2017_Best-Films_Art-FilmThere are going to be people that say “The Florida Project” has no plot, that it is a shapeless cluster of pranks and gags intermixed with scams and chicanery. But the film has a definite diagram, and if you have a diagram, that’s a plot: Halley does worse and worse with attracting attention to herself that she’s an unfit mother (she’s prostituting within the motel, and everybody knows it and Moonee senses it), and if she continues to parade bad behavior, somebody will have to intervene for Moonee’s sake.

Dafoe is a lock to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but “The Florida Project” could be shut out at everything else because the Academy, in all its wisdom, played all its cards last time indulging love for another indie film / social studies lesson, that of “Moonlight” even though the so-sick-its-real-and-so-fascinating “The Florida Project” is a hundred times better (which isn’t fair to compare, since “Moonlight” is a fine film, but come on). The Academy is not going to give the top awards to two indie films in a row. Never mind that. Gotta make this your first must-see priority. “The Florida Project” is astonishing in its truthfulness, even when it skitters into fantasy in its final breathtaking shot which is the breakthrough that Moonee, or any child, has fancifully longed for.

115 Minutes. Rated R.


Film Cousins:  “The 400 Blows” (1959, France); “Mud” (2012); “Boyhood” (2014); “Tangerine” (2015).

Florida_Project_ Sean_Baker_Best _Filmmaker_Career-Work

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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