Directed by Sean Baker, The Florida Project takes place in a budget motel in Florida and is seen through the eyes of the six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), going through the day to day life of her, her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), best friends Jancey and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) and long-suffering motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). As Moonee and her friends make their own adventures in the world of the motel complex, Halley struggles to earn money, eventually resorting to shady arrangements in order to provide for her and her daughter.
On the positive side, Willem Dafoe is really good as the long suffering, slightly gruff, but ultimately caring and good-hearted motel manager Bobby; in the central motel complex, the world that the characters live in, he is a truly patriarchal figure – often getting annoyed and exasperated at the residents’ dangerous, outrageous behaviour and having to deal with the overall shoddy surroundings. But even with all the pressure that’s put on him, as he’s constantly taken for granted, he is a staunch defender of his residents and has a heart of gold, especially when it comes to Halley and the young kids; but he does eventually get to shout and lay down the law towards the end.
Also, in her breakthrough role, young Brooklynn Prince is quite good as the mischievous and troublesome Moonee, delivering enough smartass quips with naturalistic energy and overall being likeable and cheeky. Alongside her, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera have fun together as fellow children Jancey and Scooty – the kids in The Florida Project certainly act the way that young kids naturally do and their boundless energy and humerous quips provide the better moments of the film. Bria Vinaite is a solid lead as Halley, the trashy and volatile, but ultimately caring and loving down-on-her-luck mother, but Caleb Landry Jones is wasted in a pretty thankless role as Bobby’s visiting handyman – he’s in a couple of scenes but they’re too confusing and stop the movie in its tracks.
The film also has a unique design, bursting with boatloads of fluorescent pinks, greens, oranges and blues, highlighting the tacky, tawdry nature of the characters’ universe, as well plenty of garish, oversized advertisements and a few shots of the “tangerine sky”, found also in Baker’s Tangerine, a film of his that I really liked, despite its minor problems. The Florida Project is similar, both aesthetically and thematically, to the aforementioned film as they both focus on societal misfits, characters not often looked at in mainstream cinema, and both take place in neon-lit, run down, seedy areas.
BUT while the acting’s all well and good, as well as it featuring Baker’s distinguished style, The Florida Project is a deeply troubled film as it is excruciatingly slow, there’s wasted potential and the distinct lack of a good plot results in the film being a testing, overlong, repetitive mess that will deter most audiences and leave them scrambling for the exits.
(Which I know to be true since, during the screening that I went to, I witnessed a veritable mass exodus – a whole load of walkouts, the like of which I’ve never seen before as well as some colourful post-film comments and an overall audience feeling of bamboozlement, confusion and disbelief at what they’d just seen!)
In hindsight, you can see what The Florida Project was trying to accomplish – through a child’s eyes, looking at a microcosm of an overlooked section of American society, watching as the young kids are blissfully unaware of the sub-standard conditions that they’re living in, all down the road from the “imagined utopia of Disney World” – but the problem is that the film is far too long and too slow paced for its own good. I admit that the first half was decent but after a while, the film gets painfully rambling and repetitive and it becomes clear that there’s no coherent plot and ends up just being one random scene after another, never offering anything new or exciting as it ends up repeating itself, getting nowhere veeery slowly.
There’s a certain amount of wasted potential; the film could have focused on how the motel complex is like a community, almost a mini-universe, or maybe looked even further at how all the guests coming and going affect the young kids, who see the motel as their whole world. There is a purpose to the film, buried very deep down within its core, but unfortunately, the film’s rambling nature and unforgiving pace soon drown out whatever potential it once had. The Florida Project does admittedly culminate in a bold, frantic conclusion but aggravatingly, it ends on a complete duff note, the final shot leaving us with no proper closure and confirming the film as a massive waste of time.
At the end of the day, The Florida Project is pure film festival material – it was premiered at Cannes and has already struck a chord with critics (97% on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing) and people who admire this kind of thing will surely love it. But this is surely not a film for general release and, as evidenced by the reaction of the screening that I went to, the film will hold no appeal at all for the general public. At just under two hours, you can feel every single minute passing while watching The Florida Project; it may start off promisingly, as well as having a handful of neat moments, but it just ends up going on and on and on, getting increasingly pointless as it rambles on towards nowhere at all.