The Florida Project (2017)
Sean Baker first came onto my radar with 2015’s Tangerine, the unique and moving story of a transgender girl searching on Christmas Eve for the pimp who broke her heart. Oh, and it was also shot almost entirely on an iPhone 5s. This made Baker a must-watch director for me. His newest film, The Florida Project, follows the life of a 6-year girl and her single mother over the course of one summer. Not much more detail than that is known other than the film also stars Willem Dafoe in what critics are calling one of his best performances. The simplicity of its plot and incredible amount of positive critical buzz make this one of the movies I am most excited for this fall.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. To use a common metaphor, it is the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” If there is one thing that The Florida Project evokes it is empathy, something our world could do with a hefty dose of right about now.
Sean Baker’s latest is a phenomenal film. Willem Dafoe anchors a cast of unknowns, including leads Brooklynn Prince (Moonee) and first-time actress Bria Vinaite (Halley). Both Prince and Vinaite are a revelation, turning in stunningly powerful performances as a homeless/jobless single parent and her mischievous 6-year old daughter. Set entirely over the course of one summer, this family lives in a run-down motel on the outskirts of the nearby Disney World. Moonee is not just a rebellious child, though, and that is what makes The Florida Project effective. Both she and her mother are both good and bad, living in that gray area that most of us do. Moonee could very well be seen as gifted, as well. She is incredibly creative and self-sufficient for her age, and a natural leader, but those rebellious tendencies that she has learned from her mother are ever-present. Hally, her mother, is also not a one note character. We don’t know exactly how she got into the situation she is in, but how she deals with it is the interesting thing. Her desire to provide for her daughter is never in question, but her methods of doing so definitely are. Watching her progressively poor choices was painful – she is a parent who thinks that she is showing love but doesn’t understand fully what that means. She is in many ways as much a child as Moonee when it comes to raising her daughter.
Willem Dafoe does indeed turn in one of his career best performance as the hotel manager and the only male influence in Moonee’s life. Like most characters in the film, he has the best of intentions but leads us to question whether the choices he makes truly what’s best for Moonee and her mom. Dafoe’s character could even be seen as a surrogate for the viewer, a man who is not in the same situation but on the fringe, trying to figure out how to interact and support without overstepping his bounds. This is a movie about adventure, friendship, and innocence lost. The story is powerful from start to finish and it all leads up to an intense ending sequence that I haven’t been able to shake for weeks.
The Florida Project wowed me in a way that few films have in 2017. I resonated deeply with its primary theme of empathy. As a parent myself, watching it was sometimes difficult but always worthwhile. With any luck, many will see this poignant film and begin to look a little more closely (and with more compassion) at those outside the margins as they go about their everyday lives. The Florida Project is unforgettable – a definite must see.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.