Could “The Florida Project” contend for top awards this year? I think so. While I have to see a great many films before the year ends, right now “The Florida Project” is my favorite.
Director Sean Baker and writer Chris Bergoch are a very special team. Having worked together on several projects over the years, their last three ventures are extremely unique. There is a natural quality to “Starlet,” “Tangerine,” and “The Florida Project.” Authenticity oozes forth from each film so much so that, at times, the events are hard to watch.
In 2015, the Baker/Bergoch partnership produced “Tangerine,” which brought their particular approach to the attention of a broader group of viewers. That film was initially known as the movie shot on an iPhone. And “Tangerine” had a propulsive force that made maximum use of the flexibility and limitations associated with the iPhone. It is a significant piece of filmmaking.
“The Florida Project” doesn’t have the iPhone gimmick. But what it shares with previous films is the style of filmmaking that feels almost like an Errol Morris documentary (“Vernon, Florida” comes to mind). And while the intense, loud, often outrageous and profane momentum that so marked “Tangerine” has been tempered here, the same filmmaking techniques produce an arguably more mature and potentially less exploitive narrative.
Working with children and first time performers and mixing them with experienced actors like Willem Dafoe, Macon Blair, and Caleb Landry Jones, this Baker/Bergoch “Project” is a tricky concoction. The camera is our eye as we witness lives in various states of transition. Taking place largely in one motel located in Orlando, Florida, the story follows single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as they try to make a life while living transiently from room-to-room.
Halley is a mess. She’s heavily tattooed, often mentions her former job as an exotic dancer, and appears to be in various states of continuous intoxication, although as we grow into her character that is unclear. Her parenting skills are somewhat lacking. She allows her daughter Moonee to essentially roam free, but as we learn more about this relationship, we come to understand that the little girl is likely raising her mother rather than the other way around.
The motel is run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). He’s so fair that it hurts. Bobby commands a minor amount of respect from his employees and begrudgingly from the tenants. When Bobby knocks, the tenants open the door. But Bobby’s devotion to his job appears to be a kind of penance. In one scene a young man named Jack (Caleb Landry Jones in a nice, clean, normal role) reveals something about Bobby, which I won’t spoil. It is enough to put a lump in your throat without ever hearing the whole story. Bobby is clearly paying off some debt to society. He works hard, bagging up mattresses infested with bed bugs, painting, and working the leaf blower. He’s a good manager, but maybe one time he wasn’t such a good person.
The story evolves so naturally and incrementally that, as I mentioned, it almost has a documentary feel. At one point, there is an endless series in which Bobby assists Halley and Moonee in moving from one room to another. Apparently, the concern is that they will seek to establish residency in the motel, which might force the need for an eviction. Bobby is firm but fair—he has a system.
Three performances here stick with you.
First, Vinaite gives an uncanny performance. In my 22 plus years of criminal law practice, much of it spent talking with clients within the cold confines of a jail cell, I’ve met many young men and women like Halley. They are frustrated souls in need of someone to relate to them. In one scene, Halley visits some kind of welfare or public assistance office. We hear the voice of the agent, but never see that agent. The agent is telling Halley what she has to do, something to the effect of “get a job.” But in talking at her, the agent fails to connect with Halley.
Personally, it has taken me years to develop a way to communicate with frustrated people who do not trust you. Even today, my approach is on-going. Vinaite’s performance is so very authentic that it made me think about tone, word choice, all the mechanics and then reflect upon the key measures of empathy that form a bond with another human being.
While Vinaite is strong in the role, it is undeniable that part of her success here is her striking appearance and the notable tattoos that are so visible. She has a distinct look. But Baker and Bergoch take precious time to develop the character of Halley and her world that we really feel we know her. And Vinaite makes the most of this screen time to the point where we are less interested in her appearance and more concerned about Halley’s plight that is fraught with impossible decisions.
Second, Prince is too precious for words. This youngster could very well be award-worthy. As a precocious child, Prince plays Moonee so organically that you forget that Prince is acting. Sure, that’s high praise and a cliched critic compliment, but the character wouldn’t work without such a performance. Think about Linklater’s “Boyhood” but with a bit more polish and a focused story that covers a much shorter time period. Prince carries huge segments of the film, just by being a kid.
Finally, Willem Dafoe. This guy is something else here. I mentioned the scene with the leaf blower, but Dafoe is giving us something we’ve not seen from him in a very long time—a real person. Often Dafoe is relegated to playing a tweaked character that trades heavily on his angular features and singular look, but here Dafoe is really creating something tangible, something relatable. His creation, that of the meek Bobby, can really talk with Halley, not as a father, not as a potential lover, not even as the manager of the motel, but as one human being sharing space with another. It is very meaningful, even if the bulk of their time together features little deep conversation.
“The Florida Project” is about living life on the edges. It gives us a view of those edges without demonizing the people inhabiting that place nor by romanticizing a hard scrabble existence. It’s a firm but fair depiction. And it’s pretty magical too.