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Non-Review Review: The Florida Project

The Florida Project is a beautifully made and deeply condescending film.

Director Sean Baker beautifully captures the sense of listlessness that defines an unlikely community of Tampa residents clustered in the motels that adorn the Strip. Painted in bright colours and christened with familiar-but-non-copyright-infringing names like “Futureworld” or “Magic Castle”, these motels come to embody a purgatory for residents of the area who live in spaces originally designed to accommodate tourists. These characters live in the shadow of Disneyland, but never seem to arrive.

Somewhere over the rainbow.

The Florida Project is an impressive piece of work from a technical standpoint. Baker assembles an impressive cast, drawing out a quiet and moving performance from Willem Dafoe and establishing relative newcomer Brooklynn Prince as a face to watch. Baker’s compositions are impressive, lots of static shots that provide a sense of scale for the characters who seem tiny in comparison to the themed gift shops and giant motels that threaten to swallow them whole. In particular, Alexis Zabe’s cinematography beautifully captures this sun-drenched limbo.

However, there is a patronising cynicism at the heart of The Florida Project, and its portrayal of childhood poverty. The Florida Project is candid in its exploration of the horrors of poverty, of characters who have been failed by all the institutions around them desperately trying to stay afloat. However, it is also very calculated in how it chooses to present family life in the midst of these failures and compromises. The Florida Project tries to mesh a romantic and wistful sketch of childhood with a brutal depiction of live on the margins, and the rest feels disingenuous at best.

Wilderness years.

The Florida Project looks best as something of a live action collage, of snapshots of lives lived on the fringe. It has a very loose style, exploring the comings and goings of a group of people who have made their homes in the hotels and motels scattered across the Florida landscape. Children run wild, passing the time by playing silly games, foraging for change to buy ice cream, and exploring the nearby wilderness that has attempted to reclaim at least something from the ravages of civilisation.

There are scenes in The Florida Project that play as vignettes, little moments of life captured on film. The children offer a new arrival a tour of their own motel, including rooms into which they are not supposed to go, inevitably deciding to go anyway. The put-upon superintendent Bobby (who calls himself a “manager”, but seems to hold little authority) is at once nemesis and guardian to these kids, trying to keep them out of too much trouble while still maintaining a business.

A worthy Dafoe.

Bobby is a fascinating character, his circumstances hinted at through a few short scenes scattered like breadcrumbs through the picture. Perhaps the most interesting suggestion is that Bobby exists on the same margins as most of the other residents, just as trapped within the system and just as desperate. Willem Dafoe is superb in the role, offering glimpse of warmth and humanity that enrich the film, suggesting a character much deeper and more compelling than the space afforded to him.

The movie’s sketch of childhood purgatory is enriched through both sheer technical craft and through inspired casting. Baker has a keen eye for a good shot, particularly in the sharp contrast that exists between the bright colours that decorate these surroundings and the dark shadows in which these characters live. Baker is particularly fond of shooting the scenery, of allowing his cast to wander through static head-on shots of local landmarks. This underscores the contrast between what Florida aspires to be, and what it actually is. Alexis Zabe’s cinematography is impressive.

Tickled pink.

(The Florida Project doubles down on this contrast through the recurring motif of the helicopters that are always taking off and landing only feet from the central characters. There is a sense that incredibly wealth and privilege – and an escape from mundane reality – surrounds these characters while also entrapping them. The characters in The Florida Project seem trapped within the gears of capitalism run amok, suffocating in someone else’s fantasy. The film’s ambient soundtrack seems composed almost entirely of advertising jingles, selling what claims to be happiness.)

The Florida Project fares less well when it comes to its central story. The movie works best as a tone piece, as a slice of life. However, the throughline is the story of precocious young Moonee and her mother Halley. Moonee is a smart and insightful young girl, albeit one who seems to constantly wander into trouble. Halley is living from hand to mouth, unable to secure a job and desperately struggling to make ends meet for her daughter. Bria Vinaite is very good as Halley, and Brooklynn Prince is a breakout as Moonee.

Ladder rip.

However, the portrayal of this family in crisis feels patronising and cliché. Halley and Moonee’s arc is all but preordained from their introductory scenes, following the beats and rhythm expected of stories about children growing up in poverty. There are very few surprises or insights in the lives of Halley and Moonee. Halley has to make horrific compromises to keep her daughter safe, and it’s clear that a hard life has taken its toll on her. However, The Florida Project insists that the relationship between Halley and Moonee is anchored in pure love.

This narrative thread is the weakest aspect of The Florida Project. The movie leans heavily into clichéd and patronising depictions of poverty, thematic choices that feel very much at odds with the low-key realism that permeates the rest of the film. There is something disingenuous in this juxtaposition, The Florida Project offering a harrowing depiction of life on the fringes of an uncaring society while also offering a romanticised depiction of a dysfunctional family dynamic. There is a sense that The Florida Project wants to have its cake and eat it.

It turns out that the REAL Magic Kingdom was inside of us all along.

The result is a film that feels as shallow as the pastel palaces that it explores.

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