By Jack Dignan
We all dream of a better life. One might almost consider it a natural part of being human. Somewhere, far away, there’s a better life for us. Maybe even a magical kingdom where we can flee to where all our woes and worries are about as insignificant as they come. Life isn’t perfect. If it were, cinema would be boring. In fact, cinema may even be dead. We wouldn’t have strong characters with dreams, problems and aspirations; we’d just have smiling figures going about their daily lives, already living in a Kingdom as supposed to dreaming of it. It’s no fun, or at least not from an audience’s perspective.
One of my favourite things about The Florida Project is its central theme of finding your own kingdom. We can’t always choose our own life circumstances, but we can grow and adapt to it. The movie breaks apart this holy sanctuary falsehood that’s often associated with Florida and its magical Disney festivities, showcasing the real Florida, not often seen on screen. And not only that, but through its imperfections, it’s a love letter to Florida. While not all of it will live up to the vision the rest of the world has in its head, it’s still the equivalent of Disney Land for those who live there, and there’s no better protagonist for the job than that of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince).
She’s young, rude, adventurous and happy in her current state of being, living in a colourful motel with her mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) and a handful of friends who come and go throughout the course of the story. The Florida Project is a splice of life narrative set during the summer holidays, where Moonee’s search for solace leads her down an emotional and confronting story that she constantly approaches with a fierce smile and strong bite. Everything we see, we see from her perspective. While kids may be present during certain confronting situations, they don’t always comprehend, and it’s never been so accurately depicted than it is in this movie.
Halley’s character arc is particularly subtle, especially in the ways her true lifestyle is brought to the surface. Moonee doesn’t know everything, or if she does, she doesn’t quite understand, so it’s never explained to us, the audience. We put the pieces together ourselves, which is where I can see this movie not working for a less open general audience. You could easily toss the story aside as pointless and repetitive, with no real narrative progression made. It can be seen as a series of sequences where these young characters get up to mischief all before a dramatic climax, but it’s not. There’s a strong story at play here, but our protagonist is not the central focus. They’re a player in the game, but so is the audience, and it’s up to us to observe and discover what the outcome will be for us personally.
A key character in this story is Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, who runs the motel and is integral to the overarching themes and perspective of this child’s worldview. Dafoe is currently the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and once you see the film you’ll know way. He’s terrific. Bobby is tough and to the point, but there’s an earnestness and depth to him that bobs to the surface throughout. You care about him, and you know he cares about you too. It’s his best performance since his last best performance. Which that performance is, is up to you. Dafoe never fails to amaze, and I, for one, can’t wait to hear his speech at the Oscars this March.
The entirety of the cast kills it, most notably Dafoe, but young Brooklyn Prince is the most impressive. There’s a strong complexity behind her character, one with more layers than your average child character, and Prince manages to embody everything thrown her way. For a little while, I struggled to connect with her character, her obnoxious and demanding behaviour not too pleasant of a watch, but with time you learn to care and sympathise with her and her situations. By the time the ending rolls around, emotions are high, and there’s a scene towards the finale that Prince shares with a fellow kid actor that’s beyond tremendous. It’s no moving emotional soliloquy, like so many of the previous stand out moments, but something raw and vigorous, and it’s a stunning scene to watch unfold.
Each shot of this film is etched with a gorgeous colour palate, full of vibrant purples and pinks that make the entire thing stand out. Sean Beaker, the director and co-writer, always tries to do something different visually with his movies. His previous film, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone. While The Florida Project doesn’t have a unique gimmick, he manages to craft a beyond beautiful portrait of a child trying to find her own in a world she doesn’t realise is broken. Sadly, the film is burdened by the hype, for it’s never as groundbreaking as it’s made out to be. The pacing, especially, is very off. Plot is minimal and that isn’t an issue, but so much of this film is unevenly spread that it becomes tedious and, unfortunately, lost in the moment. Several sequences of children playing go on for way too long. A lot of them could’ve, and should’ve, been cut.
Still, what’s at play here works. The film has been a critical hit with the residents of Florida, and it makes sense. For those with any sort of personal connection to the area or the people, this film will hit you like a shot to the heart. It’s plays out as a very personal experience, one that comes across as very real. For everybody else, this film remains an exquisite portrayal of what it’s like to be a child, presented in ways Hollywood tends to shy away from. It’s not perfect, but it’s different, and certainly not bad. This isn’t the last you’re going hear of The Florida Project in the coming months, trust me.
3 1/2 Stars
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