The Florida Project (2017) Directed by Sean Baker
Review by Devin Negrete
At the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes France in 2017, Sean Baker premiered his incredibly refined exploration of American Poverty and become one of the leading visionaries in American Film.
Sean Baker is no stranger to creating films about the marginalized, under discovered, often radical communities of the united states, Highlighting the undiscovered magic of life on the fringe of culture. His characters often come from circumstances that are bestowed upon them by the luck of being born into poverty. Being born with nothing, striving to the feel the electricity of life even in the most dire of circumstances.
Beginning the film with Moonie, played by Newcomer prodigy Brooklyn Prince sitting with her young friend under the stairs of an motel building with Pink walls, clapping her feet, in a seemingly uneventful summer day. Another young boy comes running screaming their name in a short tracking shot through the parking lot before immediately cutting to the opening credits against the pink walls with an overly poppy song in a stylistic choice I don't necessarily agree with. The song choice in the opening credits is literally the only thing about the film that I disagree with.
Moonie and her friends run about the apartment complexes and motels that scatter the outskirts of the Disney property, populated by the locals forgotten and displaced by the arrival of the behemoth mega corporation like deer trying to exist in the suburb streets that used to be woods. Getting into an argument with a woman after the kids spit on her car. They run away like a little street gang back to Moonies motel and home where she lives with her Mother Haley, played by newly discovered instagram star and a revelation of an actress Bria Vinaite.
Haley is young, inexperienced, very much a child herself. She is of the utmost carefree of people, freely smoking blunts whenever and where she please, skipping on rent, and just being generally disproportionately rude to anyone who doesn't seem to give her way. She seems to not work anywhere steady, balancing between dancing which she was recently fired from and anything she can to make a buck.
We stay generally in the same local, never exploring more than a few miles outside of the general area where these characters live. Frequent run-ins with the manager of the motel played by Willem Dafoe are often the comedic highlights of the films, with Dafoe doing anything he can to stay captain of the ship in the chaotic motel environment and deal with the even crazier patrons who are hassling him basically 24/7.
One of the highlights being when Dafoe notices a very strange man walking about the parking lot, going over and talking to the kids. Going over there and seeing what the weirdo is up to, he immediately realizes he is some of pedophile pervert and obviously up to no good. The strange man makes up a quick lie that he came into the parking lot to purchase a soda. Dafoe being defiantly nice to the man, takes him on a long, awkward walk across the parking lot, discussing with him that some drinks are better than others. The creeper finally purchases a soda before having it knocked out of his hand and told to get the fuck off the property.
His hackneyed Cajun accent and his crisp yelling as the manager bobby is essentially the only form of "Proper" Guidance that Haley and Moonie have in their life in its current state. He is the only protection she has outside of her own hammer fists, which she uses several times in the film although Haley is the type of woman who is no need of a protector. but you can see through all their fights and arguments Haley has a deep respect and Father-Like admiration for Bobby. A man who has probably let her off the hook more than a dozen times, watching over the children who run free in the parking lot as the struggling parents trying to work.
You can also see that likewise Haley also see's Bobby as more than just the manager, and although not entirely apparent from the way she talks to him, behind the bratty-ness almost constantly displayed there is a deep respect for his authority in a way that is akin to a strained father daughter relationship. You can see just through the way she is careful not to push the edge with him, that he has done so much to help her, and the fact that they can even have a life that some what resembles normalcy is directly related to the Bobby kind, generosity towards Haley and her struggle
We don't learn learn much about the characters before they came to this place and we don't learn much about nicks life outside of his daily care taker responsibilities. I think this works so well in trying to distinguish the mindset of living day to day from something about trying to overcome a hard past. Haley probably has had rough times before, this is probably not her first motel she has lived at, this might not even be the first state she lived in.
There is something so honest about structurally sharing the same worldview as these characters, not giving us the baggage of their long past. There are small nuanced changes of tone every time we switch to a new character. Every time we see the film from the eyes of Moonie, things are a little brighter, the colors are a little bit more saturated. The world seems to pop out, if only asking to come explore it. The scary adult world seems far and away, like a distant land that doesn't exist. The muffled sounds of the drug fueled yelling evaporating into the facade of the background noise. All these things that are very real, seem like games, seems like fun, seem like a time to laugh. We are so unaware of the reality of the world, and like Moonie, explore this motel like a land of possibilities
When we are in the film from the point of Nick or Haley things get a little grayer, literally. The color palette noticeably chances from the vibrant, over-saturated colors we see when we are Adventuring with Brooklyn, to a more washes out, grey heavy tone base that makes everything feel a little more real. A little less magical. The pink walls of the hotel don't shine bright like some place ripe with possibilities. The optimistic aura around everything is gone.
The film is split pretty directly into two distinct halves, although both tonally identical, they same represent at least for me, a turning point as a viewer to where I started to get very worried. About the characters and about the future of this life that seems to be becoming increasingly unstable and scary. Taking an indirect course through the linear thread of the film, Baker explores these characters through a drifting focus, playing with the small nuances of their repetitive life.
The gang of kids come exploring through what looks an abandoned hotel or cottage resort area of some time. Its overgrown, no doors, no windows, The grass much taller than the kids. We see Moonie breaking a large window with a rock shattering glass all over. From the very beginning you get the indication that something bad might happen. These kids are getting a little too close to danger. Next we see them huddled around a fire place that is now packed with various pillows and other random items they find around the complex. The little boy of the group encouraged by Moonie then begins to light it on fire.
Baker Decides to cut out quick from this and to shot of the kids running back to their house, splitting up into different directions after agreeing not to say anything about what they just did. When we see Moonie run back to her house, she is asked if she wants to go see the old motel burning down. Very unlike her, she says no, which immediately arouses suspicion.
Everyone around gets so excited about the potential to watch the show of an old motel burning down. literally a mob of people with their phones out, camera ready come running down into the field where the fire is, and stand, partying watching it burn. I admit, I would probably take part in viewing of this spectacle and bakers sequence is not overly traumatic ( like a homeless man being burnt alive), thankfully keeping this scene together with an overall comedic tone.
As a viewer this film to me represents wholly the present, a depiction of characters with the mind set of "day to day". Who have a long, troubled past but cannot possibly hold the baggage of that the weight of responsibility of their current life. Like Bakers first feature film "Take Out", these characters are often stuck in situations in which they have no control. Trying everything to fix and fix but life just keeps throwing new challenges.
There is something so American portrayal of contemporary poverty, especially through the eyes of a child. We see how poverty is seen from someone who literally does not understand what is going on, impossible to grasp to truly consequences of their situation.