Monday, February 19, 2018

"The Florida Project": review

[NB: big spoilers.]

"The Florida Project" is a 2017 film co-written by Sean Baker with Chris Bergoch, and directed by Baker. The child cast features Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, and Aiden Malik. The adult cast features Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Mela Murder(!)(probably pronounced "moor-dair" if it's Latin), Sandy Kane, and Caleb Landry Jones (whom you might remember as Banshee in "X-Men: First Class").

The story is set primarily in the Magic Castle, a cheap* motel full of permanent and semi-permanent residents in Kissimmee, Florida, not far from Disney World. The action is viewed primarily through the eyes of Moonee (Prince), the six-year-old daughter of Halley (pronounced "hey-lee"), who can politely be labeled "white trash." Halley, an inveterate scammer who is not particularly good at what she does, is constantly threatened with losing her rented room by the motel's otherwise kind manager, Bobby (Dafoe). Halley illegally sells cosmetics on other hotels' property; she also steals and resells Disney resort passes in the form of colored wristbands; ultimately, she sells sexual services in her own motel room, hiding Moonee in the bathroom while she turns tricks. Bobby, for his part, spends his days putting out fires: getting rid of bedbug-ridden mattresses, repairing laundry machines, hauling out malfunctioning ice machines, shooing large birds off the property, and kicking off child perverts who like to hang around the nearby playground and try to lure kids in. Harried, overworked, and fighting an ultimately hopeless battle, Bobby is the local saint.

Moonee likes to hang with her friends Scooty (Rivera) and Dicky (Malik); she eventually makes a new friend named Jancey (Cotto) after an incident in which the kids spit on Jancey's grandmother's car from a second-floor walkway. Moonee, largely thanks to her mother, already has a pretty good idea of how to live life as a delinquent: she and her friends (except for Jancey, at least at first) are scammers in training, cutely bumming money off people to be able to buy ice cream ("The doctor said we have asthma, and we have to eat ice cream right away!"), trespassing on private property, turning off the motel's power by sneaking into the utility room, and, in a sinister turn, lighting a fire with a pillow in the fireplace of an abandoned crack house, thereby setting that house and adjacent houses on fire.

Halley and Moonee are sort-of friends with Ashley (Murder), who works at a local restaurant and secretly gives free food to Halley and her daughter. Whatever friendship there is between Halley and Ashley eventually curdles, however, when Ashley finally confronts Halley about her prostitution, and Halley beats Ashley in front of Ashley's son Scooty. One by one, as the kids get in various sorts of trouble, parents begin to forbid their children from hanging with Moonee until only Jancey, a kind-hearted kid, is left. Halley herself is slowly unraveling, resorting to more and more desperate measures to be able to pay the $1000/month rent. While the film feels like a pastiche of seemingly unconnected events, Halley's troubles continue to mount until her ultimate nightmare surfaces and DCF (Florida's Department of Children and Families) swoops in to take Moonee away from Halley.

I'll leave how the movie ends a mystery; it's an interesting solution to the sense of crushing inevitability that accompanies this story of desperate lives that become ever more desperate. Suffice it to say that the conclusion is seen firmly through the eyes of children, and many loose ends are left undone—which is, in the end, what the writers and director were going for.

Willem Dafoe was an unusual choice for this sort of role, but then again, the man has had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood, given his filmography, which includes such movies as "Platoon," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "American Psycho," "Spider-Man," "Antichrist," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and "John Wick." This movie feels far quieter and less ambitious (it had only a $2 million budget) than any of the ones just mentioned, but despite the smallness of the world portrayed in "The Florida Project," I came away thinking this was some of Dafoe's best work, showcasing what he can do in a mundane situation bereft of cosmic symbolism, pulse-pounding action, sex, and gore.

Given how child-centric this movie is, I was happy to see such talented child actors in front of the camera. Brooklynn Prince is a natural, and so are her child costars. The dialogue, too, is thankfully child-like in nature, not sounding overly stilted or precocious in the over-written way of so much children's dialogue. When the kids say something that they find funny, we laugh too because it's the sort of goofy thing that kids would say to each other, especially when they think no one's listening in. There's not much for me, personally, to relate to in this portrayal of childhood, however: I was a square who never ran around with delinquents, probably because of my basic personality and because of the neighborhood I lived in as a kid. My friends were fellow squares and nerds, all of us bookish and fascinated by questions of history, science, and religion that were way over our heads (and probably still are). That said, I could see that the director did his best to give us an empathetic look at these kids, and even though they're all horrible, in their own ways, toward the neighbors, they're still cute and impossible to hate. Which brings me to an interesting question: what if the casting director had chosen to populate this movie with nothing but butt-ugly kids? I think we'd have had a much different movie on our hands, and I confess I would likely have felt much less sympathy toward the children every time they got in trouble.

As I mentioned earlier, the movie's plot doesn't feel as if it's rolling forward at first; it feels more like a series of aimless vignettes, not so different from the pacing we see in "Lady Bird." But there is a plot, to be sure, and it's given to us as a slow burn, allowing us to watch with mounting dread as Halley, who—despite being a loving mom—has lived as a liar, scammer, and whore up to now, eventually has to deal with her festering karma.

The movie's moral message is subtler than one might think at first. The easy route is to say, smugly, "Thank God I'm not living through that. Thank God I've made better life-choices." But look more deeply, and you can see that the movie is really saying that, in the end, we've all got trouble. We all make bad choices in life, and we all have to deal with the karmic consequences of those choices. Halley (very ably portrayed by Bria Vinaite) might look like white trash, but she's just trying to get by like the rest of us.

According to trivia, the movie's title refers to what Disney World had originally been called: The Florida Project. The fact that such a skanky motel neighborhood exists so close to fantastical Disney World provides us with a painful contrast between an idealized good life and the nasty, gritty real world. And it makes us hope that Moonee and Scooty and Jancey's futures can be much better than it seems they'll be by the film's end.

ADDENDUM: if I'm not mistaken, the entire movie takes place without music until the final sequence. I don't think I even noticed this fact until the music suddenly kicked in. And I also just realized that every character's name ends with an "ee" sound: Bobby, Halley, Moonee, Jancey, Scooty, Ashley, Dicky, etc.

*Cheap per day, at $35, but this adds up to over $1000 per month.


Charles said...

You sure have been watching a lot of films lately.

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, it's vacation, so I'm bingeing. And lately, when it comes to movies, I always feel as if I'm playing catch-up. I also recently got Season 1 of "True Detective," so that ought to be interesting.

John from Daejeon said...

With your strong interest in religions, you will probably be questioning why you haven't seen "True Detective" sooner. It's a real mind bender and eye opener which is why season two was a let down for many even though it's very good in its own "evil," eye-opening way. I'm looking forward to your views on it and its unique music score.

Frank said...


You've become my go-to guy for movie reviews. I recently watched "The Hunt for the Wilderpeople" (enjoyed it) and am now watching "The Station Agent" which I'm truly enjoying so far. I started watching "The Florida Project" a while ago but stopped after the first 5 minutes but after reading your review, it's going back in the queue for another chance.
- True Detective; loved season 1, and contrary to critics and viewers mostly negative reviews, I thought season 2 was also very good.

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks! I hope you end up liking "The Station Agent" as much as I did; I'm glad you're enjoying it thus far. It's not a rip-roaring, slapstick comedy; it works on a quieter level. That said, I appreciated its depth and sentiment. As for "The Florida Project"—I suspect your enjoyment may be proportional to your tolerance for naughty kids with trashy moms. If Jesus were around today, these are the folks he'd prefer to hang with, so maybe it's apropos that the saintly role of Bobby is played by the guy who played Jesus in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

At some point, I'll need to catch "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," but today is the day that "Thor: Ragnarok" comes out on video, so I'm pouncing on that first.

Frank said...


The Station Agent was great. I enjoyed the character development and interactions; he went from a pretty serious fellow to even cracking the occasional smile.
I loved "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," (and plan on watching it again) which made me check out "In Bruges" & "7 Psychopaths" - all directed by Martin McDonagh, who likes to use many of the same actors in his movies, and it works.

Kevin Kim said...


I've seen "In Bruges" and loved it, but strangely, I haven't reviewed it. Maybe it's time to rewatch and review. "Three Billboards" is now next on my queue. Recently, I've seen some interesting essays about how theological the movie is. Would you say "7 Psychopaths" is worth a look? I've heard mixed things.