After the calamity we witnessed yesterday, let’s return to the Oscar race, this time a new film from the minds behind 2015’s Tangerine. The director, Sean Baker, employed a slice-of-life narrative to talk about transexual prostitutes residing in an impoverished neighborhood in his previous effort, and this time he uses a slice-of-life narrative to talk about kids and single moms residing in a welfare hotel. As with Yorgos Lanthimos, Baker seems to be sticking to what he knows and what he knows is how to get some decent performances out of no name actors in a meandering plot.
Well I say “plot,” but The Florida Project doesn’t really have a conventional narrative. You’re introduced to a young girl named Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) as she lives at the Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, Florida (near Orlando) with her single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley pays the weekly rent at the motel through a constant hustle of peddling perfumes to tourists since she can’t hold down a job. We mostly follow Moonee as she gets into trouble with other kids living at the Magic Castle and other welfare motels like Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera). Watching over Moonee is the Magic Castle’s kind but gruff manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and you mostly witness all of these characters interactions with each other over the course of one hot summer…yeah that’s all I got.
As I said, the film kind of just shuffles from scene to scene with very little narrative drive until the final 30 minutes in which a conflict is finally introduced that persists until the closing credits of the movie. Prior to that, you mostly follow the day-to-day life of these various characters as they simply try to survive and scrape together enough money to avoid being tossed out to the street. While at some points the film piqued my interest as the characters reached various low points, the lack of narrative really lost my attention as the movie just drifts around showing multiple unconnected realities facing those below the poverty line. Which is a shame, as films discussing harsh upbringings are welcomed stories to tell…it’d just be to actually have a story in this film.
I thought back to other films that employed a day-in-a-life type narrative and have plenty of examples where the technique is used to greater effect. Loving was memorable for NOT focusing on the Supreme Court case that would strike down miscegenation laws in the United States, and instead focusing on the relationship between Richard and Mildred Loving and how the circumstances of their marriage affected their family’s life. Further, while I wasn’t particularly enthralled by 20th Century Women for it’s lack of story, there was at least a concept of a single mother seeking the advice of her friends to help raise her son which provided some form of emotional stake in various characters I grew to love. Finally, there’s one of my favorites of last year, Moonlight, which chronicled the life of a young man coming to grips with his sexuality by focusing on three major points in his life that made him see the world a little differently.
But as I had explained in all of my reviews for these films, I have difficulty attaching myself to a film when the story is essentially nonexistent. So I need something else (like a major conflict affecting the protagonists in all of the above examples) to keep me emotionally invested. Otherwise, I’m just left with a film like Everybody Wants Some!! that merely shuffles from scene to scene with a bunch of characters I care very little about. Unfortunately, The Florida Project only really gives me two genuinely great performances out of the young Brooklyn Prince and veteran Willem Dafoe.
We spend a significant period of time with Prince’s character, and she does indeed play the part of a trouble making kid growing up in a rough neighborhood very well. But she’s not playing really a three-dimensional character, we just get to know that she acts like a bad ass little kid because her mother just doesn’t care and even encourages her horrid behavior as they live a blissful life. While the actress does well with this material, the script gives her barely anything to do.
Thankfully, Dafoe’s character is given slightly more to do and I honestly would have preferred if he was the focus of the film instead. He’s far more likable and has much more a fleshed out personality: he’s aggressive towards any threats to the tenants of his motel, particularly the children, and he’s patient with many of the long time residents even when they break multiple rules or act out in terrible ways. The film even hints to a complicated relationship with his own family even as he has a better connection to the Magic Castle, but the film quickly forgets all about it in favor of following Moonee’s antics.
While watching Moonee and her friends get into trouble can be fun, you don’t know any of these characters particularly well, so my investment when things get really intense for her towards the end of the film is very limited. Furthermore the ending…well, I have thoughts about it. Without spoiling, as the film cut to credits there was an audible “huh?” in my theater because the final two minutes launched us out of the damn film like a trebuchet. And while I suspect some critics would defend it as they do other indie darlings from the distributor, A24, I pose the following the situation: imagine if the film was instead widely released by a certain, unnamed, monolithic company that has its tendrils in multiple entertainment ventures. The ending to this film would come across as gauche at best, and straight up insulting at worst.
Regardless, I still enjoyed the performances on hand from Prince and Dafore that I could recommend people to check it out, but definitely not in theaters. The ending coupled with the lack of story puts this film at a decent enough…