It has been a long time, a really long time, since I have watched a film that has been so magnificently spellbounding while immersing itself and its characters in wondrously aching worlds of truth.
The Florida Project is, quite simply, one of 2017's most outstanding cinematic achievements, a film that affirms that Sean Baker is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today and a film that left me feeling the full spectrum of human emotions for days after the closing credits scrolled by.
With the exception of Willem Dafoe and a handful of others, The Florida Project utilizes a cast with little or no theatrical experience yet, I can say without hesitation, there isn't a false note ever struck within the film's beautifully paced 111-minute running time.
To call The Florida Project one of the finest films ever made about childhood is both lofty praise yet frustratingly inadequate. It is a work of wonder and hope and despair and light and dark and everything that childhood is all rolled up into one. While I may yet see a better film than The Florida Project in 2017, it's difficult to imagine a film having a more profound impact on who I am and who I want to be moving forward.
The Florida Project centers around six-year-old Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her rebellious survivor of a mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). The two live, or rather exist, from week-to-week at a budget motel known as "The Magic Castle" that is managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who possesses the kind of sternness that one must possess to manage such a place where nearly everyone is doing whatever it takes just to survive. Yet, Bobby possesses more. He possesses an inherent kindness, a compassion for his residents and a paternal spirit of sorts for the young lives, especially Moonee, who dot his poverty-stricken landscape.
Moonee is the kind of child that we all know if we're paying attention, a child with a full deck stacked against them yet a child who somehow manages to find celebration in life with every word and every movement and every new adventure. Living on the fringes of a magical kingdom that is desperately close yet so far away, Moonee and Halley and the rest of those who reside at "The Magic Castle" have been forgotten even though they are right in front of us.
Despite the harshness of her surroundings, Moonee lives into each day as if it is to be a celebrated grand adventure. Almost unfathomably innocent yet filled with a fearless devotion to childlike mischief, Moonee and her ragtag playmates, including her new best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), explore the world around the "Magic Castle" in ways filled with awe-inspiring childlike wonder and fraught with potential tragedy at every turn. Halley, fiercely devoted to her child yet seemingly caught within the cycle of poverty from which there may be no escape, fights to protect her child from the harsh realities of her increasingly unstable and unpredictable world.
Newcomer Brooklynn Kimberly Prince is nothing short of extraordinary here, serving up a breakout performance for the ages as six-year-old Moonie. Much as I was so taken by young Jacob Tremblay in Room, Prince never hits a false note here as she and her merry mayhem makers live in dire circumstances only minutes yet worlds away from Orlando's Disney World. It would have been easy for Baker to have bathed the story in a romanticized poverty, but instead The Florida Project reminds us that childlike wonder and innocence doesn't have geographic limits or economic limits or circumstantial limits. Against the backdrop of seemingly every obstacle imaginable, The Florida Project gives us tribal spirits and surviving hearts, minds, and bodies that know no other way to live. From dancing in the rain to accidentally setting an abandoned crack house on fire, Moonee and Jancey and Dicky (Aiden Malik) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) become kids you fall in love with precisely because, despite everything, they are kids.
The Florida Project also manages to provide Willem Dafoe with what is easily his best role to date, a role that goes completely against everything we've come to expect from Dafoe yet a role that now feels like it's the role he was always born to play. It's almost unimaginable that Dafoe wouldn't be rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, and if there's any justice a win, for a performance that radiates the kind of honest, deep humanity that is seldom captured on the big screen with anything resembling authenticity.
The Florida Project is damn near absolute perfection, a film that you won't forget featuring characters you won't ever want to forget. It's a funny and sweet film and, yes, an honest and occasionally tragic one. It'll make you laugh. It'll make you cry. It'll piss you off. It'll make you grateful to be alive. Baker's previous film, Tangerine, was a low-budget masterpiece of an endeavor that, at times, suffered from being known as the "iPhone film," when it was so much more. With The Florida Project, Baker shoots on 35mm film and there can be no confusion at all. Capturing the washed out yet vibrant vistas of landscapes and young ives brimming with possibilities yet left behind by a world either too busy to care or too lost in its own agendas, Baker has created one of contemporary cinema's most definitive films on childhood.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic