The Florida Project
After stunning many with the colorful Tangerine, Sean Baker reemerges with another visually stunning and magically simplistic film. The Florida Project revolves around Moonee, a precocious and fun-loving little girl living in a shady Florida motel just outside the wonderland of Walt Disney World. The film follows her as she and her young friends mischievously explore the dilapidated surroundings of their home, finding paradise in the town's wasteland. Her young mother Halley, played by first-time actor Bria Vinaite, has an affectionate but troublingly relaxed approach to parenting, treating Moonee more as a 7-year-old best friend than a daughter. However, by making adventures out of the questionable tactics she uses to provide for them, Halley manages to maintain the walls of childhood innocence surrounding her daughter. Acting as a sort of father figure over Moonee, Halley, and all of their fellow residents at the Magic Castle Motel is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe. The unique visual techniques Baker employs and the heartbreaking authenticity of the characters and their surroundings work together to weave this tale of childhood innocence in a land rarely viewed by audiences.
Several aspects of this film work to make it the cinematic spectacle that it is. Firstly, Baker's directorial technique and masterful camerawork give the picture a compelling visual element. Between the beautiful sunset backdrops and the bright purple walls of the Magic Castle Motel, color is employed in just about every shot to emphasize the beauty and brightness of the world through a child's lens. Its location near the animated and highly touristed Disney World also lends itself to the delightfully youthful aesthetic; as the children trek across Seven Dwarfs Lane and take in the amusement park's epic fireworks from their backyards, the audience becomes equally enveloped in the magical luster of Moonee's young person paradise. In addition to his use of these illustrative backdrops, Baker maintains the innocent scope of his lead character by limiting the audience's perspective during the more mature moments in the story. During scenes that involve nudity or physical altercations, the camera angle just barely hides the illicit, like a parent protecting a child's eyes from such situations. While mature themes such as pedophilia and prostitution are moderately infused in the story, they are never explicitly illustrated or discussed. The viewer sees and hears enough to follow the more adult content, but is shielded from a full view of these moments, just as a child would be shielded in her understanding of them. This tactic especially emphasizes the emotional weight of the story's conclusion, at which point (slight spoiler alert) Moonee's childhood innocence as she has known it is abruptly withdrawn and she begins to lose her grasp on her undaunted view of the world.
The other most gripping aspect of this film is its authenticity, both in the setting and in the vibrant performances of its (mostly novice) actors. The motel in and around which the story takes place is an actual motel in the less-than-prosperous area of Kissimmee, Florida. The shops, fields, and abandoned buildings that furnish the children's playgrounds are real constructs with real inhabitants. This appears to be another of Baker's characteristic tactics as a filmmaker, as he often sets his stories amid the overlooked and neglected nooks of America. He tends to employ this method when casting his characters, as well; as he did in Tangerine, Baker chose first-time actors in some of his lead roles. In fact, he found his Halley (Vinaite) on Instagram and, after unsuccessfully attempting to find an actor with her aesthetic and personal brand, reached out to her with an offer to audition. Despite having no prior experience in the field, Vinaite gives a natural, yet electric performance which personally left me forgetting she was acting at all. As for Brooklyn Prince, who plays the adorably uninhibited Moonee, Baker could not have casted a more perfect and believable child. All of Prince's lines seem to have fallen straight out of her mouth without any direction, including those in scenes that require an emotional stretch for a 6-year-old. Rounding off the performances is Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the keeper and protector of the Magic Castle Motel. While this is far from Dafoe's first acting rodeo, his performance in this role perfectly balances those of the other characters and provides the much-needed structure in the wild terrain of the film. These three leads capture the audience emotionally and carry it through the film with natural ease and poignance.
As one can denote, I was a major fan of this film and have very high hopes for it this award season. My predictions for its recognition at the Golden Globes, SAGs, and Oscars (subject to change) are as follows:
Best Supporting Actor, Willem Dafoe
Best Director, Sean Baker
Best Cinematography, Alexis Zabe