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The Florida Project (dir. Baker)

Image: Brooklynn Prince and Christopher Rivera in The Florida Project [Source: IMDB]

★★★★☆

Over the summer, in the shadow of Disney land – The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker, follows young feral yet precocious six-year-old Moonee (Played by Brooklyn Prince) as she causes mischief and mayhem bonding with friends and her rebellious mother (Played by Bria Vinaite).

Director: Sean Baker. Starring: Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe [15]

If you’ve never heard of Sean Baker, he is the man behind the critically acclaimed film Tangerine (2015), and if you’ve never heard of that, it’s a film with the unique gloating right of being entirely shot on an iPhone 5s, about a prostitute trying to track down the pimp that broke her heart. Thankfully The Florida Project is no less bizarre, human and unflinching and Sean Baker brings all the talent and innovation he has from Tangerine with him to this film.

One thing I think sums up this film and certainly Sean Baker as a director and storyteller is the humanistic focus. At its core this film is about growing up, but not just as simple as that – it is growing up in poverty surrounded by splendour. Through the cinematography, the film the splendour is given a soft-focus effect to give it a glow, Baker takes it and furthers this glow using strong vibrant colours – purple and yellow, and vibrant greens to reinforce this contrast of outside perspective and image to the ‘dirt’ beneath. Oftentimes the film will go from these vibrant looking buildings to the desaturated room of Moonee’s mother or the wilderness, trees, tall grass and empty decaying buildings. Much of the movie reinforces this idea that beneath splendour and vibrancy is real struggle and pain, whereas the wilderness is free and beautiful.

This is thematically linked to our main characters, Moonee, her mother Halley and even Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe). These characters all have this outside image that they portray. Moonee is this carefree, feral spirit always causing havoc and being utterly carefree but as we see throughout the film there is lots of pain in her eyes. She genuinely cares deeply about her friends and friendships, as well as Bobby even though she makes his life hell. Much of the same can be said for Halley, although her desired image is of a rebelliousness nature, she is considerate (of those she cares about) and she does all she can to ensure her daughter’s happiness about all else – even her own image. Although Bobby’s image differs in that he is not putting on a mask, so to speak, he does hide the fact that he is unhappy and perhaps to some degree yearns for a life like Halley has, free and open. He wants to reconnect with the wild and is in touch with his compassion for fellow humans, which could explain his interest in Halley and Moonee.

“Is this part documentary?” I wondered watching these actors perform. The performances themselves, notably from the children and Bria Vilnaite are so raw and uncompromising that they are utterly convincing. The children just seem as though they were captured through a similar technique as men were captured for Under The Skin (Glazer. 2013) in which they were unexpectedly and unknowingly captured on camera. Bria Vilnaite also feels so much like a real person, that the story and the way these characters speak, especially Moonee, is never out of place or feels false. This is much to the film’s credit and furthers the bond between the performances and the story, the humanistic focus – of which you get a real sense of, never feeling as though the camera is out of place or the filmmaker is out of touch.

Sadly the film does lose its focus at times, finding itself wondering if this is about the children or the adults, the pacing suffers in the middle because of this, but it remains consistent with its character which is what saves the middle act. The film is hurt slightly in that as an audience member you wouldn’t be the odd one out to wonder what the film is trying to say specifically, but that is also what the film is about. The discussion between you and it, not always finding the answers you expect or finding anything right away.

Through its breathtaking performances and characters, The Florida Project is raw and unflinching. Telling a somewhat desperate tale of a human endeavour in the image and why we all have one, like it or not. Losing focus for the middle act slows down the pacing and hurts the overall experience to an extent, but it remains an interesting and thought-provoking film, offering many different ideas and readings.

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