The Florida Project is the latest film from director, writer, and editor Sean Baker and production house A24. The movie tells the story of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her struggle between being a child and growing up in severe poverty as a part of Florida’s motel class. The adults living at The Magic Castle Motel, a by-the-night or -week motel in the shadow of Disney World, do their best to shield Moonee and her friends from their struggles, but can only protect them from so much. The most important people in Moonee’s life are her three best friends, her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), who is “doing her best,” and Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the caring motel manager who’s at the end of his rope. The movie takes place over one summer with a series of motels and failed condominiums acting not only as the kids’ playground but also a source of mischief, strife, and danger as they are left mostly to their own devices.
Sean Baker first gained notoriety for his 2015 film Tangerine. (Listen to our Black on Black Cinema review here.) Tangerine told the story of Sin-Dee, a transgender working girl searching for her boyfriend/pimp who cheated on her while she was locked up for solicitation. Except for maybe the subject matter and the quality of the film, Tangerine is most remembered for being shot entirely on an iPhone. Baker is a self-reported cinephile and that, combined with the fear of being typecast as “the iPhone guy,” he decided to shoot every scene of The Florida Project, except for one, on 35mm film. Some people may find that one scene to be jarring because it is very noticeable when the change is made, but others may find that it brings the first bit of magic to The Magic Castle Motel.
The Florida Project first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May before receiving a very limited release (four screens) on October 6 and will be opening in the UK next month. With a rumored budget of $2 million, I am not entirely sure where all the money went. I don’t know if they rented a hotel or cleaned up an abandoned one, if Willem Dafoe cost a lot of money, or if the film is just that much more expensive than shooting digitally. I don’t think I would want the film to look much different than it does now because the sun-bleached, lived-in look adds to the feeling of realness. The Florida Project is well shot, very well acted and so beautifully and authentically written that I wonder about the childhoods of Sean Baker and his writing partner Chris BergIoch. I won’t be shocked if this receives a best screenplay Oscar nomination in February.
The story surrounding the making of this film may not be as surprising as being filmed on an iPhone. However, the fact that the majority of the kids are first-time actors, and that Bria Vinaite got a chance at her role because of videos she posted on Instagram, is a credit to their skill and that of Sean Baker as well. He also got a performance out of Willem Dafoe unlike any I have seen before. I usually think that he should play the villain because of his looks and his strong ability to act angry or creepy, which we saw some of here, but we also go to see a softer side of him. My only substantial complaint is that, with a runtime of 115 minutes, I think the film is too long by about 10 minutes. Some scenes didn’t need to exist or and others didn’t need to be repeated up to three times.
If you grew up like Moonee or just happen to be a certain age, the film could really resonate with you. We weren’t well off when I was growing up. It was mostly paycheck to paycheck living, so I had it much better than Moonee, but we do have some things in common. I am in my early 30s now, but I remember being six years old and running around all day with my friends while my mom was at work and my dad was in bed after working the night before. We would explore, play, and sometimes end up in places we didn’t belong, like Moonee and her friends. I can still point out the homes of the good and bad people of the neighborhood to this day. I would watch this film again, and I give it 4.5 out of 5, because it does nothing poorly and many things very well. If you’re a fan of movies like Midnight or Beasts of the Southern Wild, I suggest searching out The Florida Project. To learn more about the movie or how you can help struggling communities in Florida, visit the film’s official page.