Sean Baker Finds All The Feels - The Florida Project
Sean Baker is one of those film makers who seems to know what he's doing. I don't mean in the technical sense, though he is adept there too. I mean in the sense that he knows what making movies is really about. He uses his talents to point cameras at people and tell stories about people. Stories that are not often told and are not widely understood. By now, his brand is one of taking many of us to worlds we do not know. Now, many filmmakers would argue their work does the same. And while degrees of that may be true, Baker has shown an ability to make every frame of his films about understanding people. The Florida Project is his followup to 2015's Tangerine, which was my absolute favorite movie that year. The Florida Project is a worthy successor and gives me great hope for where Baker is headed next as a filmmaker.
Moonee (played endearingly by Brooklynn Prince) is six-years old and she lives with her mother, Halley (played by Bria Vinaite) in an extended-stay hotel. She and her friends, Jancey (played by Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (played by Christopher Rivera) live a carefree life of panhandling, vandalism and general delinquency. The motel Moonee lives in is managed by Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe), a gentle man who tries to keep this place on the rails while still acknowledging that the residents are just people. Throughout the movie, Moonee and her friends encounter challenges that eventually end up threatening life as they know it. The entire film is a picture of life beyond the point of spinning out of control; this is life lived on the edge of a razor blade. The story takes place in Kissime, Florida and the name, The Florida Project, is derived from an early name for Walt Disney World Resort, which functions as a symbol of all these kids are missing out on by having a limited set of positive experiences.
These are kids who do not understand the consequences of their actions--largely because many of the adults in their world don't seem to either. They are, in the truest sense, products of their environment. And yet throughout, Baker finds a way to show they ways in which humanity shines through circumstance. Like trees that fall and continue to grow, these kids make their way through the world the best way they know how. The most heartbreaking part of it all is watching them experience things and knowing it may be the last time they have that experience in such an innocent way. Whether encountering child molesters, or displaying an inability to recognize prostitution, theirs is an innocence that is coming to an end. Baker challenges the audience to grapple with what that means for these kids' present and future.
Fresh off the kids of IT, I thought that was peak movie kids for the year. Oh, how wrong I was. The kids of The Florida Project are as endearing as any I have seen on screen. Beyond the wonderful insights into the challenges people face in certain situations, these kids were just a joy watch. I could have followed them for hours, exploring this world that is so unfair to them in ways their six-year old minds can't quite grasp. Foul mouthed and misbehaved, but undeniably compelling. Even when their behavior is off the charts wrong, the wide eyed performances drive home that they are just emulating the adults around them and doing the best they can with what little information they are able to process. That Baker so easily taps into their psyche is a real treat.
I can't say enough good things about Baker's direction here. This is a thoroughly directed movie; his hands are on every frame. From the pastel color palette, to the sunny wide shots, it all feels crafted. The final product really exposes who people are--their flaws, their beauty, and everything in between. Though it is just a snapshot in Moonie's life, so much about who she is is crystal clear. We can see where she's been and where she's likely to end up if nothing changes. That clarity can be difficult to pull off in such a "simple" story, but Baker manages to do it over and over.
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