Dir: Sean Baker
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe)
The Florida Project was the working title Walt Disney used for his utopian theme park that has defined the tourist trap of Orlando ever since. In Sean Baker’s follow up to the much talked about Tangerine, Baker depicts a life on the fringes. A forgotten side note to the American dream the characters of The Florida Project live in Kissimmee, just outside Orlando, in a complex of budget motels that seem that to live in the shadow of the mega bucks tourist centre. This collection of motels and shops are all painted top to bottom in vibrant colours as if to try and fool you that they are part of Disney’s American fairy tale, but in truth these are the people and places left behind by the American dream desperately clinging to it’s coat tails hanging on to the bottom rung, and the motel is Baker’s metaphor for a country that pretends nothing is wrong beneath it’s flashy exterior.
The film’s central character is six year old Moonee, mischievous in the utmost, Moonee is a borderline delinquent tearaway. It’s little surprise Moonee behaves as she does, her mother Halley is the worst kind of parent that essentially condones this type of behaviour through her own lax attitude to rules. While it’s all laughs at first the consequence of Halley’s loose boundaries she sets for her and Moonee’s life is clearly always headed for certain disaster. Halley is the sort of character that tests your patience, she clearly has had and does have major problems, mostly poverty connected, that have led her to this unfortunate life. She repeatedly refuses to (or perhaps fails / is incapable of) get a handle on Moonee’s behaviour. Despite some initial amusement at her not giving a fuck attitude, in the end it becomes hard to sympathise with Halley and maybe that’s Baker’s point. She seems as though she is wilfully making bad decisions because she really doesn’t care, but in reality it may well be that she simply doesn’t know how to make good decisions. We see others reigning their kids in and attempting to keep them sheltered from the pitfalls of this poverty stricken environment, whilst Halley continues to be a bad mother. She seems beyond help, so we don’t end up feeling inclined to help her as a society.
As Moonee slips further into a troubled childhood we start to see how the system offers no relief and even the highly capable, pragmatic, well meaning to a fault motel manager Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe) is despite all efforts essentially powerless to control the ultimate destiny of the mother and daughter. Willem Dafoe is spectacular here, embodying a kind of modern day Atticus Finch. He has so much heart and soul it’s heart breaking to watch him try and keep tabs on the developing situations in the motel as though he is father to all the residents. He shows a dedication to his job and warmth of character to those around him, despite being exactly the no nonsense type that a world like this requires. But for Bobby’s near perfect moral fibre and capabilities he is only human and cannot fight a system that is broken. It might be a career best performance for Dafoe.
The film is beautifully shot, exploiting the bright vibrant colours of the real life motel locations to pull into sharp focus the darkness that lies beneath. Unfortunately at times Baker’s story and world can feel a little thin. His brilliant use of the child actors is captured using wonderfully natural photography that highlight the charisma of the child actors on screen. Sadly he does rely on this for a little too much of the film and slightly over eggs it in trying to establish the connection between the audience and Moonee. All too often Baker just points his camera the kids and lets them go. It works well generally giving a naturalistic feel, but he does stretch it a bit as the film wears on. It’s one of the year’s better films but by no means perfect. But then why should it be? The portrait Baker paints is one that shows the imperfection beneath America’s perfect dentistry and “Have A Nice Day” smiley culture. The film ends in a sequence where Baker actually just sneaks a camera into The Magical Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Most of the film is beautifully shot on 35mm, but these closing moments are shot on Baker’s iPhone without the permission of the resort. It’s as though Baker is trying to physically access the American dream literally by sneaking in. The closing sequence does feel a tad hurriedly bolted on, but is the subject of wider interpretation. Is it a dream sequence? It may be that Baker is suggesting his characters only access to the joys of the American dream are indeed only available to them in their imagination.
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