Cannes 2017: Sean Baker's 'The Florida Project' is Vibrant & Full of Life
by Alex Billington
May 23, 2017
What an exhilarating experience. Tangerine director Sean Baker has premiered his latest film, titled The Florida Project, at the Cannes Film Festival and it's truly worthy of the standing ovation it received. It contains some of the best performances I've seen on screen this year, from very young kids and the talented Willem Dafoe, with a drifting story about childhood and poverty in modern America. The title The Florida Project refers to Disney's domain in Orlando. When Disney first started buying up land and planning Disney World, they referred to it as "The Florida Project." The film is about the many "hidden homeless" living near Disney, and follows a wily group of very young kids living in motels who run around all day causing trouble.
From the moment the film begins, you know you're in for something very unique, very special. While there are adults, including the single mothers taking care of the children, The Florida Projects focuses entirely on the kids. I don't know where or how he found them, but these three kids are crazy talented, and they do such an incredible job of bringing so much life and energy to the experience of watching this. There isn't much of an actual narrative to follow, except with the main girl named Moonee and her mom Halley, who scrape by anyway they can - selling perfume out of bags, stealing Disney wristbands, and more. The film is more of an experience, and it's exciting and engaging and amusing to follow them around. This loose narrative allows the theme of poverty to build up quietly, becoming clearer as the film continues, heartbreaking by the end.
Part of what makes The Florida Project unique is that it's visually and emotionally vibrant and packed with humanity, even if you don't want to believe these poor people don't have any humanity. The truth is, they do, they just want to live their life like the rest of us. The cinematography by DP Alexis Zabe is exquisite and intimate, freely following the youngsters as they run from motel to motel, room to room. The final shot, which I won't reveal, is one of the very best and took my breath away as it all played out. It lives up to the expectations it builds throughout, and never strays too far from the bounds it has defined for itself. Baker knows exactly what he's doing and it shows, he's deft in crafting a film that has a strong vision yet doesn't bash us over the head with politics or emotions. The way he handles the kids makes it seem natural and real.
Aside from stellar performances by Bria Vinaite as Halley, and the young Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, the film's other unforgettable performance is by Willem Dafoe. We've all seen Dafoe in so many films and so many roles, but this is perhaps one of his best ever, and I really mean that without being hyperbolic. His character, which is enhanced by this tender and nuanced performance, balances out the rest of the film in such an important way. Dafoe plays Bobby, who is the manager and maintenance guy at the motel, and he could be an asshole and often has to be tough on the "guests", but does it in a way where you can feel how much he genuinely cares for all of them. He honestly brings half of the humanity to the film and it's terrific.
It's honestly hard to describe and attempt to convince anyone to see The Florida Project without referencing a trailer or footage from the film. It's a film about troublemaker kids running around rundown motels in the swampy backyard of Disney World, but it's also about growing up, and the challenges of living in modern, capitalism-obsessed America. It's also challenging to fully describe how exhilarating and enchanting it is to watch this film, because it's all about the kids and their foul-mouths and their wild sensibility and careless attitudes. Even that doesn't sound good, but I'm not sure what else to say. All I can say is that this film left me floored, and is one of the best films at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It's full of life and honest emotion, and can teach us plenty about learning to respect others no matter what they may seem like on the surface.
Alex's Cannes 2017 Rating: 9 out of 10
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