****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: NO RATING
My Recommendation: Sorry...I have no recommendation on this one.
The Florida Project, written and directed by Sean Baker, is the story six-year old Moonee who lives in debilitating poverty with her young mother Halley in the shadow of The Happiest Place on Earth®, Disney World. The film stars Brooklynn Prince as Moonee with supporting turns from Bria Vinaite as Halley and Willem Dafoe as Bobby Hicks the manager of the rundown motel Moonee and Halley call home.
I have to be upfront and say that due to personal reasons, The Florida Project is a difficult film for me to critique. Further complicating matters is that I am not at liberty to discuss with readers the specific reason why I struggled to watch and review this movie. As frustrating as that may be for readers, I feel it is important for me to present that information up front so that this review can be read with a properly jaundiced eye.
With that unpleasantness out of the way, let's take a look at The Florida Project. To start, The Florida Project is a bold film that unapologetically and without the usual sentimentality, explores the curse of poverty in America, for that it should be lauded. Part of what made the movie so difficult to watch was the suffocating and infuriating sense of desperation that infects every pore of this film. I liked what it was trying to do, but was so uncomfortable throughout the film that I simply cannot say whether it was effective or not.
The working poor portrayed in The Florida Project are a hopeless and hapless lot who are unwittingly condemning their children to the same fate or worse by passing down to them the culture and mindset of poverty. Across the board, with Dafoe's Bobby Hicks being the lone exception, every character in this film ought to have "Born 2 Lose" tattooed on their forehead. The delicious irony that these folks all live in the shadow of Disney World only heightens the notion that the American dream is, in reality, a waking nightmare and you have to have the intelligence and imagination of a six year-old to be dumb enough to believe in it.
What The Florida Project expertly shows is that poverty is not born not out of a specific race but out of a distinct culture. White, Black and Latino characters all make the same bad decisions and all inflict upon their children the same disease of instant gratification and myopic idiocy from which they suffer. It is from this culture of instant gratification and myopia that the type of poverty seen in The Florida Project takes root and thrives.
The other positive about the film is that it shows these characters all live in dehumanizing poverty despite the fact that many of them work extremely hard. It is due to structural and systemic reasons though that even the hard workers can never even remotely get their head above water. The system is most definitely rigged against all of them and is meant to thoroughly exploit them from cradle to grave.
I kept thinking of the Latino family in the film The Big Short while I watched The Florida Project. If you'll remember, that "Big Short" family is evicted from the home they are renting because their landlord defaults on his mortgage and they are left living out of a van. There is a scene in The BIg Short where that Latino family is at a gas station and one of their little children runs away from them towards a busy road. The parents quickly catch him but the inherit peril of their situation for them and their children is made visceral in that brief scene. That "Big Short" family most likely would have ended up living in the same rundown, nowhere motel that Moonee and Halley and their hopeless comprades reside.
The Florida Porject is well-shot in a psuedo-verite type of style by cinematographer Alexis Zabe. The film maintains enough cinematic shot structure to be visually coherent, but it certainly maintains a verite feel throughout. This approach to filming enhances the performances of the unknown cast, who all excel with the raw and improvisational approach. Zabe does really solid work with framing and in exploiting the rainbow of vibrant colors like pink and light blue that naturally inhabit Florida.
Brooklynn Prince is the young girl, Moonee, who is the protagonist of the film and she basically acts just like a kid running around on her own in Florida would act. That is both a good and a bad thing. It is good because it feels very natural and matches the filmmakers style, but it is bad because some kids her age, and her character in particular, are absolutely obnoxious. If you have children, even though you love them with all your heart, you are still probably watching a movie to get away from them, so spending two hours of your free time with an irritating and abrasive beast of a brat like Moonee and her equally horrible friends may not be very appealing. If you don't have children, this movie is a two hour public service announcement for abstinence or abortion, depending on your religious and political persuasion.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying Brooklynn Prince is an incorrigible brat, I am saying her character Moonee definitely is, and it is tough sledding watching her run wild in the blistering heat of Orlando. That said, in the one scene that matters above all else in the film, Prince crushes it and knocks it so far out of the park it lands somewhere in Cuba. Does her humanity and emotional vulnerability in that one scene make the other hour and fifty minutes of her incessant obnoxiousness bearable? That is definitely open to debate.
Bria Viniate does excellent work was Moonee's very young and chaotic mom Halley. Halley is pretty unbearable as well and is every bit the obnoxious child that Moonee is, but her toxicity pulsates with a palpable wound that at times is very compelling. Halley is a train-wreck, and yet even though she is an abysmal mother and a terrible human being, there is never a moment when you doubt that she loves her child.
Willem Dafoe's Bobby Hicks is the lone steadying and sane influence in the entire hotel of hopelessness. Dafoe's Hicks has a certain smoldering kindness to him that at times burns so hot as to be a fury. Hicks qualifies as being the one-eyed man in the hotel complex of the blind, and he tries his very best to be a benevolent leader even when his tenants conspire to make his life a living hell. Hicks is the character that proves that the plague of poverty is cultural because he is not a victim of his impulses or desires, he controls them and therefore has a semblance of order and predictability in his life. Hicks certainly has impulses, like wanting to smash a predators head in or telling his disgusting tenants or his blowhard boss to go to hell, but he has impulse control and therefore, unlike the poverty stricken surrounding him, he is not a victim to his desires or an accomplice in his own demise. This makes Hicks the one bright light of aspirational hope in an otherwise irredeemably demoralizing story.
To its credit, The Florida Project succeeds in exposing the brutal working class poverty that is engulfing America and spreading like a plague. Once you are infected by this disease of poverty, it becomes chronic, generational and fatal. In the throes of this poverty, marriages fail, mothers and fathers abuse and neglect themselves and their children, and aimless children are left to their own devices and exposed to predators and dangers of all types, thus ensuring the infection of poverty continues to feed off its host for generations to come.
Rarely does a film dare to so unflinchingly inhabit such an uncomfortable and unpleasant existence as The Florida Project, for that it is to be acknowledged and praised. That said, due to my previously mentioned personal issues, I found the film to be, frankly, unbearable, so much so that I found myself checking out emotionally and even intellectually pretty early on. The reason for my inability to stay emotionally invested in The Florida Project may be because it was simply too realistic or maybe because it was poorly made…to be honest, due to my issues, I am frankly not sure.
In conclusion, I cannot in good conscience recommend or not recommend The Florida Project. All I can do is ask you to see it for yourself if you have interest in the subject matter, and make up your own mind. I apologize for my inability to concisely and clearly offer you any advice regarding this movie, but just like America when it comes to the topic of poverty, I seem to be entirely emotionally, psychologically and intellectually ill-equipped to be of any use on the matter, and instead am left puzzled to the point of paralysis. If I weren't so paralyzed, I would frantically run away to Disney World, where the Happiest Place on Earth® might make me forget all the things from The Florida Project that I simply don't want to remember.