Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE FLORIDA PROJECT: another small but strong movie from indie filmmaker Sean Baker

I've been following the films of Sean Baker since his 2004 sophomore effort, Take Out (you can find my review and Q&A with the filmmaker here) and finding that work evolving, growing richer and stronger with each new film. Baker has now made six full-length features, with his latest THE FLORIDA PROJECT, the most precious jewel in the crown. Word was out early regarding how special is this movie and, for those who love narrative films with a documentary feel, as all of his films have so far seemed, this one will not disappoint.

Mr. Baker, shown at right, loves children -- both of the small sort, and those who, though they may look like adults -- see Starlet and Tangerine for a couple of examples -- still mostly act like the kids they've never been able to move beyond. How they manage (or don't) to begin to make that move comprises the arc of those two films and their characters' stories. With The Florida Project, Baker gives the actual small kids their lead and lets them run with it. The result is initially bubbly, bracing and enormous fun, but as the movie moves along, its dark side surfaces almost equally. What's missing for most of these kids is not only proper parenting but the kind of safety net any decent society needs. The movie does not "tell" us this; it doesn't need to because it shows us so clearly everything we need to know.

The film takes place in the Orlando, Florida, area -- far enough away but also near enough to Disney World to make that place resonate without our ever actually having to see it (throughout most of the movie, at least). Instead we and our scrappy heroine, Moonee, played by a very young actress, Brooklynn Prince (shown above, center, and below, right), who makes an indelible impression here, hang out at the low-end motel in which the kids and their caretakers live. All the children are terrific and seem as real as kids get, but Ms Prince receives the major screen time, and she's worth every minute of it.

As her problemed mom, newcomer Bria Vinaite (above) is equally real and twice as troubling, as the character stumbles from one bad move to the next and yet keeps caring for her daughter as best she can -- which is, unfortunately, not really very well.

The filmmaker mixes professionals actors with non-pros and does this with such ease that if you did not already recognize performers such as Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair and especially Willem Dafoe (shown above, and who is as incredibly fine here, playing what you might call a "normal" character, as he has ever been), you would think them all just part of the real people Baker has recruited for his project.

Baker's choice of incident builds carefully and very well to what will be a turning point. We don't know quite in what direction it will turn, nor whether it will help or hinder, but by then we've spent nearly two breathless hours watching, smiling, wincing, frowning and feeling childhood, its joys and discontents, as strongly as you could want -- and all with characters from an economic/social class of which many of us don't rub up against at all often. When we do, we're likely to somehow discount them. Mr. Baker (as with all his films) makes certain that doesn't happen here.

The Florida Project, from A24 and running 115 minutes, opened on its home ground, Orlando, last weekend and will hit Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach this Friday, October 20, along with elsewhere throughout the country now and in the weeks to come. To discover the theaters nearest you, simply click here.

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