In case you weren’t aware, Orlando is more than just Magic Kingdom and Mickey Mouse. Director Sean Baker paints a very barebones picture of poverty and places his audience into the dark life of Halley (Bria Vinaite), a struggling mother to the young, silver-tongued Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). If you’re looking for a feel-good tale, look elsewhere. This is grimy and real to its core early on, but Baker’s formula doesn’t hold up for nearly two hours.
The idea is gripping during the film’s first act. From the fun angles and following the children through their mischievous adventures, we see signs of a unique story unfolding. On a technical front, there are plenty of engaging shots coupled with hardly any score, with most of the music being diegetic sound, adding to the hyper-realism. The child actors opened the film sitting along a purple wall at Magic Castle, a motel where Moonie and her friends live. The film takes place in Orlando, not far from Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and follows a single mother and her daughter as they struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The neighboring motel, Future Land, plays host to a friend Moonie makes along the way: Jancey (Valeria Cotto). The dynamic between each child is the highlight of The Florida Project. They’re vulgar, smart and clearly influenced by their parents, which isn’t a good thing.
Halley is friends with Ashley (Mela Murder), mother to Scooty (Christopher Rivera), another one of Moonie’s friends. Both of them curse and drink in front of their children and, heck, the first instance with Halley is one of her smoking weed while Moonie and Scooty hang out in the room. Almost immediately is the table set for a depressing time with this Orlando community.
Baker manages to succeed for the most part in capturing the harsher areas of a city known for its magic. During one sequence, Halley and Ashley spend the night enjoying themselves at OBT, which my girlfriend ever-so kindly explained is Orange Blossom Trail. Prostitution, drugs, drinking, bikers, camaraderie — it’s found here at OBT. The moments that follow fail to grab my attention, however, and Baker’s formula soon runs dry.
Once the second half of the film began, the film crawled through the mud. Baker wrote the screenplay alongside Chris Bergoch, but both struggled to build on the story and dialogue that worked fine in the first 45 minutes. Baket’s decision to hold my hand throughout the film watered down a majority of the story. How many more montages do we need to see of Moonie in the tub while, off-screen, her mother is soliciting sex out of her motel room? We only need to see it once. Alas, these heavy-handed moments, along with a scene where a Brazilian couple is used as a plot device to try and force the letter of how bad the motel is, fail to stir any imagination as we get closer to the finish line.
A bigger issue at play for The Florida Project is character-building. I fail to connect with any of our lead actors outside of the children — because, let’s be fair: we all made fart noises with our hands and ate dripping ice cream. Bria Vinaite’s performance left little to be desired and, honestly, is what hurt the film in what should’ve been its more emotional moments. When Halley is shouting at motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), I just can’t buy into the dramatics. There’s no concrete love/hate dynamic at play, either, for anyone. The film wants you to care about this terrible situation, but force-feeding the audience hardly worked. Jancey evolves from being innocent to breaking rules while hanging with Moonie, with her character is the only one that I feel truly develops over the course of the film.
There are bright moments, however, and those fall on the back of Willem Dafoe. His performance felt most natural and, man, when he shows how much he cares for those kids, it tugs on my heartstrings. The issue is there’s not enough Dafoe, or maybe I’m being selfish and wanted less Halley. The way Bobby handles unruly guests — it’s all believable, which is the complete opposite of what we see from surrounding actors.
Just like Baker, I have trouble ending this review because, heck, I really wanted to love The Florida Project. There’s a good idea on the surface, but the film could hardly execute and gather enough steam when it reached what should have been its defining moments.
I was treated to an advanced screening for purposes of this review thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing and A24. ❤
“The Florida Project” is rated R, runs 1 hour and 55 minutes and releases in South Florida on Oct. 20, 2017.