The Florida Project is a far cry from a science fiction or fantasy film. But the concern it gives to its world-building (the realistic depiction of time and location in narrative fiction) is equivalent to the concern a sci-fi film would give to its world-building. The setting here is Magic Castle, an atrocious motel on the outskirts of Disney World in Orlando, filled with representatives of Florida’s lower-income white community, often (and pejoratively) referred to as white trash. This isn’t a place you have ever seen in the movies, and this perhaps isn’t a place you know of either. Yet, in only 112 minutes, the co-writer and director of The Florida Project, Sean Baker, transports you into this desperate world and into the lives of his cast of oddball characters.
The concern [The Florida Project] gives to its world-building is equivalent to the concern a sci-fi film would give to its world-building.
I had the privilege of seeing The Florida Project at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival. The Florida Project is directed by Sean Baker, whose most recent film was Tangerine, a drama about a transgender sex worker shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. With this film, Baker opts for 35mm film over an iPhone, creating a feast for the eyes in the masterful camera work of his cinematographer, Alexis Zabé. The cinematography captures the vibrancy of Magic Castle and the lives of the characters. The motel is constantly bursting with shenanigans by the most foolhardy of junkies, and Zabé’s camera never misses a beat in capturing this seldom-seen world.
The main focus of The Florida Project is a group of six or seven-year-old children. Wide-eyed, curious, and playful, just like all kids that age, these kids are always keen to seek adventure. The screenplay, written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, eschews a traditional plot, settling for an episodic narrative instead. The Florida Project consists of several moments which tend to involve the shenanigans these kids engage in. They are idealists, consistently seeking joy, and are assertive in their desires to live a happy life, even though the kids are smart enough to recognize that they live in a world devoid of happiness.
What is interesting to note is how the children themselves play victims to the horrid environment in which they have been raised. The protagonist of The Florida Project is Mooney, the six-year-old daughter of Halley, an immature stripper-turned-prostitute who throughout the film shows an utter disdain for societal norms. Halley has a negative influence on her child, and we see the results in a vivid and visceral portrayal of failed motherhood. There is a moment early on in the film which is fairly unsettling, where Mooney doesn’t bat an eyelid when using profanity against an elderly woman, although she has every reason to feel afraid of behaving appallingly. But her mother, an irreverent young woman, is her sole role model. As a result, she emulates her mother’s childish behavior.
This might seem like the source material for a one-dimensional character, but The Florida Project never regards its protagonists as such. The film refrains from judging even the most despicable of characters. Instead, the film ponders upon how the characters reflect the setting they have been fostered in and raises uncomfortable questions about a side of America rarely seen or discussed. To explore this world, Baker uses elements of cinéma vérité, a style of documentary filmmaking characterized by its storytelling through stark observation and an emphasis on realism and realistic use of film language (ie. prevalent use of the handheld camera). You have most likely only seen films with elements of cinéma vérité, such as Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films, with their documentary-style handheld approaches, or The Office and its contemporaries that gleefully present a mock-reality-show feel (in cinematography and narrative style) while remaining completely scripted and directed. The Florida Project isn’t an archetypical cinéma vérité film, like the examples given. Baker utilizes cinéma vérité’s propensity to observe individuals and their daily lives. But what prevents The Florida Project from being a pure cinéma vérité film is how the film indeed does feel directed. Still, we clearly find a great deal of authenticity in Baker’s honest direction of the actors.
The film refrains from judging even the most despicable of characters. Instead, the film ponders upon how the characters reflect the setting they have been fostered in and raises uncomfortable questions about a side of America rarely seen or discussed.
Of the film’s many authentic performances, Willem Dafoe of Spider-Man fame steals the show. Dafoe, who has earned BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Screen Actor’s Guild Award nominations for his performance, is Bobby, the strict but fair manager of Magic Castle who is so determined to effectively run his motel that he essentially becomes a father figure to his motel’s guests, although they can be a complete nuisance. Yet he is persistent and remains committed to pleasing his disobedient guests while having them follow his rules. It is a thoroughly fascinating role, and Dafoe sinks his teeth into it, delivering one of the year’s best performances, while performed subtly and sensitively.
As I watched the film, I was surprised by how much I was able to resonate with these characters who are completely unlike me. Baker finds the emotional core of every character in the film. He presents the characters’ inner complexities with simplicity while not sacrificing a character’s emotional intricacies. In spite of the heavy subject matter, the film never forgets to have a sense of humor. The contrast between the humor and the perturbing elements of the storytelling is parallel to the children’s sense of idealism in a tough world. The film ultimately is about childhood, and it is the uncomfortable edges surrounding an innocent theme which makes The Florida Project a dark, disturbing, but wholly engrossing portrait of the motel’s residents.