Friday, December 1, 2017

The Florida Project

In a rundown hotel walking distance from Disney World live 6 year-old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Set during a single summer, the film focuses on Mooney's friendships with Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and her mother's struggles, scams, and cons to come up with rent every week while a fall-out with her best friend (Mela Murder) causes trouble for her both herself and her daughter.

The Florida Project is amazing, but it isn't a fun movie. There are no cute twists, easy answers, or tacked on happy endings for Halley or her daughter. Left largely to their own devices the kids get into trouble beyond regular childhood mischief, and the compromises Halley makes to feed and house her daughter lead to a heartbreaking finale. There's not much plot as settings and circumstances are fleshed out by showcasing the average days in which the characters live. I'm not sure how much of the children's scenes were scripted, and how much was improvised by letting them run wild, but young Miss Prince proves more than up to the challenge when the story gets serious in the film's final act.

In many ways as childlike as her daughter, Halley is a loving mother who is always looking for an easy answer to whatever issue arises. Her child needs food? She calls on her friend the waitress at the local diner. She needs rent money? She scams tourists. She has trouble with someone at the hotel? She solves it with her sharp tongue and fists. Despite her obvious love for her daughter, it's clear that Halley is treading water to keep them afloat for as long as she can, but sooner or later the tide with overtake them both.

In a crucial supporting role, Willem Dafoe is terrific as the hotel's manager and maintenance man. Despite his gruff exterior, and them being a constant pain in his ass, he continues to look out for Halley and the kids, carrying as much about the occupants as keeping the rundown hotel in shape. It's been more than 15 years since the actor's last Oscar nomination, but based on his performance here there's a good chance he'll be walking the carpet next spring.

A more cohesive plot may have helped flesh-out the story a bit more and given a more structured storyline, but co-writer and director Sean Baker plays to his cast's strength while framing the story of a marginalized family and their struggles with an unflinching camera. Set almost literally in the shadow of the "happiest place on Earth," there's a joy in the children's rambunctiousness, and in Halley's love for her daughter, but the shadow of Mickey Mouse can only cover up deeper issues for so long, even for the mischievous and lighthearted Mooney who can't help but begin to see cracks in the fantastical world of her imagination.

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