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« Vintage '85: Madonna, Stallone, Marty McFly, Golden Girls... | Main | Doc Corner: Emmy Awards Go to Meryl Streep, Ava DuVernay, and Somebody Close to an EGOT »
Tuesday
Sep122017

TIFF: Sean Baker's Wondrous "The Florida Project"

by Chris Feil

With Sean Baker’s compassionate ingenuity, The Florida Project is a heartbreaking (and heart-renewing) fable of American poverty seen through the resilient eyes of children. Set in a slum motel just a stone’s through away from Disney World, the film follows a boisterous toddler names Moonee and her mother Halley as they struggle to get by. But like Baker’s other tales of people on the fringes, Project lives more in their joy than their pain.

Inspired by The Little Rascals, much of the film’s uplift comes from Moonee’s misadventures leading her friends on explorations of their run down surroundings and getting into trouble. With Halley often absent, Moonee is mostly kept safe under the watchful eye of the hotel manager Bobby, played with weary warmth by Willem Dafoe. Project transcends empty platitudes like “it takes a village”, but with Bobby the film shows the systemic limitations and exhaustion of an outsider helping to raise a child in this environment.

As with Baker’s Tangerine, this film presents two exciting breakthrough performances from Brooklynn Prince as Moonee and Bria Vinaite as Halley. Vinaite is ferocious and unpredictable, giving a headfirst dive into Halley’s flaws and resiliency - it’s a poignant performance that would rather spit in your face than ask for your sympathy. Prince is a natural comic force and right at home with Baker’s previous foul-mouthed, tough as nails heroines. She’s prickly, adorable but not cutesy; like Vinaite’s caged anger, Prince’s work doesn’t seek your affection but earns it all the same. Get ready to fall for both of these women.

With Halley and Moonee’s parallel trajectories both tragic and optimistic, the film fascinates in its dualities. Their tacky tourist trap surroundings are both fantastical in colorful hugeness and dingy with the stench of bottom barrel capitalism. Friends downstairs are like an alternate version of Halley and Moonee but led with more foresight and better decision making. Disney World casts as much of a shadow over Moonee as the epidemic she is subject to.

Baker makes the hotel its own exotic wonderland with the slightly sad ebullience of a faded Lisa Frank travelogue. The film is a sea of pastels, gorgeously shot in 35MM by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. Color reflects the film’s state of mind, the promise of rainbow that eventually grows stale as hope becomes a past tense concept. The film runs a little shy of two hours, which feels rather epic compared to Baker’s usual brevity and creates a slight lag in the film’s middle third. But with Project, Baker makes his most distinct film for how its emotion burns as brightly as his spirit of innovation.

In Baker’s tragic fairy tale is a bruised American heart that keeps prevailing despite the circumstances. In its depiction of homelessness and a broken system that leaves families to fend for themselves, the film has a fiercely political undercurrent that makes for one of the most uniquely felt cinematic experiences of this year. If The Florida Project doesn’t make you look at the world around you with more empathy, I’ve got nothing for you.

Grade: A-

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Reader Comments (6)

jesus just one sentence about Willem DaFoe? you sir are the real DaFoe.

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

kris - the film isn't really his story, but he is quite good. And I suspect we'll have the months ahead to really dive into his work here ;)

September 12, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Looking forward to this one. Dafoe a best actor contender?

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Glenn Close is getting raves!!!

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/12/the-wife-review-glenn-close-brilliant-toronto-film-festival-tiff-2017

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Yes to Glenn Close!

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Raul - He's been campaigned supporting and many consider him the frontrunner so far.

September 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

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