The Florida Project

The Florida Project ★★★★★

When I first finished watching Sean Baker's The Florida Project in the theater last year, the first thing I wanted to do was watch it all over again. I wanted to experience every moment, every interaction, every adventure or foray into trouble that Moonee and her friends got into. There wasn't a single thing I could find to fault in it, and even now I find myself absolutely floored by what has been created here.

Imagine taking the grand scale of Midwestern culture in American Honey and scale it down to the one segment that takes place in the motel. That's where Baker sets his sights on for his ode to childhood imagination. It's almost spitting distance from Disney World, the greatest place where the dream of every child can come to life. Also like AH, there is no real basic plot in The Florida Project, and there is never really a specific call for one. We follow Moonee and her friends around as they romp around between motels, exploring abandoned buildings and asking strangers for money to buy some ice cream, just doing what any other kid would probably be doing on a hot summer day in Orlando.

Baker doesn't take any risks in glorifying the environment in which his characters thrive. True, Moonee and her friends are free to wander about and create their own adventurous experiences, but there's an atmosphere here that evokes the typical lower-ish middle class ("white trash" as we would call it) that invigorates the world these kids live in. There's danger around the corner, but the majority of the time we see all this through Moonee's point of view, so we are never really completely certain of what could come. The audience is possessed with that same carefree and imaginative spirit that we all used to have at that age. Where every random door can lead to another dimension. Crossing a bridge could take you to a faraway land. A table is a mountain. There's a massive amount of escapism here that Moonee takes in that makes The Florida Project one of the most rapturous cinematic experiences I've had in years. It's the exact reason we watch movies in the first place. People will complain about an implausible ending, but isn't that the whole reason movies were made in the first place? Audiences want to escape from their lives for a few hours and live a life they could only dream of. Very few films have really caused me to feel like I've been placed in the shoes of its protagonist as The Florida Project has, which makes it one of the select few pieces of quality cinema that I could watch over and over again without getting tired or worn out.

It would be a crime not to mention Willem Dafoe's groundbreaking performance as Bobby, the motel manager who serves as the kind-hearted voice of reason to Halley and Moonee alike. He is a watchful guardian, keeping the premises clean and efficient, ensuring that no harm, physical or otherwise, can come to the children. His fatherlike presence is magnificent- a warm and transcendent presence that is unlike anything I've seen in him before. Opposing his terrifying facial expressions in, say, Spider-Man, Dafoe proves that there's a far more human side to his acting abilities than one would have presumed. It's an emotionally riveting portrayal that garners my vote as the best supporting performance of the year, and an undeniable snub from the Academy Awards.

If the Oscars really even mattered, I would mention that it's also a crime that The Florida Project was all but ignored at the awards show this year. Dafoe got a nomination, but considering the previous attention A24 got from the Academy for Moonlight, I would have hoped that they surely would have been able to foster more love for this coming-of-age masterwork. The child performances are astonishing- perhaps the best I've ever seen from a film of this caliber. Everything from Brooklyn Prince would have had to have been a stroke of improvisation, and her character is nothing short of completely genuine in this portrayal. It's not even acting from her, it may as well just be her living her daily life. Her interactions and fantasies all collide in ways that only a child could have done- it's like we're watching her actual day-to-day life and not a scripted plotline.

The Florida Project is Sean Baker's masterpiece, my favorite cinematic endeavor of last year, and one of the most imaginative and emotionally invigorating films I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Its perfect scrutiny of childhood innocence and the adult-oriented world she finds herself in is a magnificent spectacle- that perfect balance between emotional reality and pastel-laden fantasy. The Magic Castle is a place where dreams come to life for Moonee and the viewer alike- a realm of escapism from that crazy world that her disoriented mother threw her into. Baker doesn't berate his adult characters for their actions, but their consequences are far from celebratory. I could never write enough or well enough to do this film justice, but if I were to ever find another film from Baker I love more than The Florida Project, I'm certain I'll hail him as the greatest auteur of our time.

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