Saturday, December 30, 2017

Review: Sean Baker strikes gold with "The Florida Project"

The Florida Project Review

In room 323 of a rundown purple palace shithole lives six-year-old Moonee. In the sun-drenched poor side of Orlando, Florida, Moonee and her friends Scooty and Jancey go on adventures every day. Sometimes they hustle for change, just so all three of them can share an ice cream cone. Sometimes its running around outside the palm trees and the green. Sometimes, it's breaking things in an abandoned building. When Moonee isn't hanging with her friends, she's with her mom, Hailee. They hustle the streets of Orlando, just so Hailee can pay off their rent for the month. Moonee is full of joy and innocence of being a kid. She has no idea just how poor she is. She has no idea what her mom does just to keep her fed and provide a roof over her daughter's head. Worst of all, she has no idea how close she is to losing everything she holds dear to her young life.

These are nearly all the details of "The Florida Project," the new riveting film by Sean Baker. Baker may not be a household name, nor has he totally earned that status quite yet. But with the buzz generating around this film, he may be on his way. We don't get too many movies about the impoverished dregs that fill up any city. When we do, we usually get a cautionary fable of how one goes from rags to riches. Obviously, it takes lots of hard to work to get out of a predicament like this, and the realistic edge of Baker's film that won me over. We don't get any straight up stories about poor people, but this is what Baker is really good at doing: making films about people Hollywood doesn't dare to showcase. The first Sean Baker film I ever saw was "Tangerine," a movie that focused on a group of transsexual prostitutes. This is subject matter that almost feels forbidden, even in Hollywood. But Sean Baker was able to make something funny, dazzling and emotional from the material, and he does so once again with "The Florida Project."

Moonee is played by Brooklynn Prince, a young actress so far off the map, you can't even find a Wikipedia page on her. She brings Moonee to such ferocious life, that I can't even imagine what it was like for Sean Baker to ask Prince what to do. Moonee is a free spirit with the volume cranked up and pumped full of steroids. She talks back to anybody who challenges her, she constantly gets in trouble without a care in the world, she roams the city virtually unsupervised for nearly all of the film, and she curses like a sailor. This is beyond character development and nearly falls into method acting, and I can't believe what Brooklynn Prince pulls off here. How did she bring this character to life? What did her parents think when they read the script and found out what their daughter was going to be asked to do? How do you explain to a six-year-old how they are going to behave for a movie like this? It's absolutely astonishing work, and as a far as child performances go, a tour-de-force.

I suppose the same can be said about the other two kids. Christopher Rivera plays Scooty and Sandy Kane plays Jauncey. Again, these are unprofessional little kids, and what they pull off is beyond talent, and feels like something completely different. Each of these kids is a wild child and they treat the entire sun-dried landscape as their playground. Everything feels so organic between the children, so real and authentic that I can't believe I am talking about little kids. If acting is truly the calling cards for these kids, they are off to a healthy, long-lasting career. Each and every one of them.

Then there's Bria Vinaite, who plays Hailee, Moonee's mother. A 24-year-old woman whose only claim to fame is weed-themed clothing. She never acted before this, and it's wild that this unprofessional entrepreneur can hold her own with Willem Dafoe. Hailee is a wild child herself, she is a mother to a six-year-old but she's barely an adult herself. She certainly doesn't act like one, and this wild world of scheming and hustling to pay rent comes off as casual and normal to Moonee. But what other choice does Hailee really have? We don't get sucked into loads of backstory, we are just dropped into this world of poverty-stricken individuals. But you never feel any false notes in the film's running time.

Yes, Willem Dafoe is in this, and yes he's very good. It's a different kind of Dafoe we see here. So often, Dafoe plays villains or serious characters. Sometimes, he's even a goof. But we rarely see this sincere, sentimental side of him. In "The Florida Project," Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the "motel" that Hailee and Moonee live in. He parents Moonee more responsibly then Hailee ever does. Dafoe isn't in the movie a whole lot, but he makes every bit of his run time memorable. Lots of familiar faces pass by in this movie. But overall, the film belongs to the young, unprofessional cast that Baker has assembled, all acting as if they veterans of the business.

Its amazing how naive and hilarious much of the film is, feeling more like a day-in-the-life of these people most would refuse to point a camera at. But the funny moments are so organic, never feeling forced. So when the inevitable eventually happens, its a sucker punch to the heart. This film destroyed me as the credits began to roll. It's a brutal beauty, and something that I feel is going to be hard to shake in the upcoming days, perhaps even weeks. This is, easily one of the year's best movies.


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