By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
The 2018 Oscar nominations are out, and although there are a number of worthy recipients this year, one of the glaring omissions is Sean Baker’s extraordinary The Florida Project, a vividly realised, daringly confrontational film that captures a way of life that hopefully many of us will ever have to endure.
Set at the colour co-ordinated Magic Castle Motel, which was initially built to offer affordable lodgings for people visiting Disneyland, the place has become a last-chance location for various low-income people, who are on the verge of becoming homeless. Short-term accomodation has become anything but, and basic expenditure such as rent and food is almost impossible to stay on top of.
It is here we meet six year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who along with best friend and neighbour Scooty (Christopher Rivera), are filling in time by having a spitting contest on another tenant’s car, an endeavour which soon gets them into trouble with the vehicle’s owner. Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager, is brought in to oversee the problem, and after forcing the girl’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) to agree, gets the two kids to clean up their mess. Through this encounter, Moonee and Scooty befriend the quiet, innocent Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
The three children, whose guardians obviously can’t afford to send to school, make the motel their personal playground, and through them we get an overview of others who reside at this socially isolated place, which might as well be located on the moon. Halley relies on welfare, and has to attend appointments at a hard-to-access office, a bureaucratically entangled, systemically over-run agency which is clearly overwhelmed by the amount of people asking for help every day. Halley is uneducated, and any prospects of employment and a better life seem impossible. As the story develops, Halley’s behaviour clearly indicates she herself was inadequately raised by less-than-responsible parents, and thus sadly it appears that fractured, irresponsible mindset will be passed on to Moonee.
As Halley goes to desperate measures to be able to keep a roof over their head, Moonee and her friends explore their surrounding environment in the way kids do, but the continual lack of proper parental supervision makes every adventure a potentially dangerous one, whether it be from outside forces, or from their own antics which, without adult guidance, border on juvenile conduct.
The Florida Project offers the kind of passionate, searingly involving film-making that has been slowly disappearing from the Hollywood landscape. Editor/co-writer/co-producer/director Baker (Tangerine) doesn’t want to keep his audience in a comfort zone, and simply employ sentimental schtick and redemptive qualities to make sure movie-goers aren’t troubled too much by what they are seeing on screen. Many of the characters are quite off-putting, but Baker skilfully opens up (without lazy exposition) as to why these people act the way they do. He is not asking you to like them, just try to understand why they behave the way they do.
Aiding the film’s all-too-believable atmosphere is the brilliant cinematography by Alexis Zabe (Post Tenebras Lux, Lake Tahoe), hugging its surroundings with such intimacy that it feels you are experiencing these events directly through your own eyes. Every aspect of this depressing landscape is recorded in minuscule detail. This would make a great companion piece with Andrea Arnold’s challenging epic, American Honey.
Performances, from mostly a non-professional cast, is also first-rate. Prince is a terrific find as Moonee, never turning her character into a cloying or mawkish symbol, and along with her fellow young actors, are always completely naturalistic. As the consequences of what is happening around them begins to weigh on their tiny shoulders, the type of problems children shouldn’t have to face at that age, there is a certain similarity to Boaz Yakin’s outstanding 1994 drama Fresh.
Vinaite attacks her role with committed energy, bringing her role to life with such conviction that it seems like Halley is someone who has been torn from an accompanying documentary. Her performance may even make-or-break some viewers’ involvement in the film itself, as it is so unrelentingly abusive and hostile, but those who are patient will start to see what Baker is doing and why he has chosen this particular, knowingly agonising path. As socio-economic opportunities disappear, and the divide between rich and poor increases, people falling into this near-hopeless existence is also noticeably continuing to grow, creating new generations of children who’ll be born into an instant dead-end, bereft of a sense of hope and the possibility of attaining a positive future.
Veteran actor Dafoe (To Live and Die in L.A., Platoon, The English Patient, Wild At Heart) is wonderful as the continually beleaguered Bobby, whose role is forced to go beyond mere motel manager. With so many tenants living on or below the poverty line, and numerous children running around unsupervised and undisciplined, Bobby has to wear several hats, and his want to keep these outcasts housed while trying to appease his boss who is only looking at the place’s bottom line, has him living each day in a constant state of stress. Dafoe, mostly known for playing villains, exudes a genuine humanity, and is easily one of his best performances.
The Florida Project is exceptional viewing, intelligently balancing a child-like sense of wonder with the harsh realities that encircle it. Sean Baker has crafted an unforgettable feature that fiercely clings to you right up until its moving finale, and one has to wonder why this potent effort (along with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer) hasn’t been properly acknowledged by the Academy.