Film Review: ‘The Florida Project’

Mason Hickok, Staff Writer

Sean Baker is one of the most exciting directors at work today. With a keen eye for human emotions and a willingness to go to necessary lengths to tell his story, Baker weaves an intimate portrait of people living in “on the margin” circumstances. His film, “The Florida Project,” is a beautiful exploration of childhood in the face of sometimes harrowing situations. The band of children in the film guides the viewer through a different life: one filled with awe, friends and mischief..

“The Florida Project” uses cinematography that may seem mundane to the viewer, a stylized pseudo-documentary shot composition, and a structure that breaks the mold of three acts. Baker does a nice job of balancing a cast of mostly first-time actors with a grounded, brilliant performance from Willem Dafoe, playing Bobby, the strong watchful motel manager. The film follows Moonee, her mother Halley, and the various children living at the motel, the Magic Castle.

Baker weaves a tight story with his cast and fluid camerawork. Oftentimes, the film utilizes hand-held and tracking shots. At one point, the film uses a candid camerain the same vein as MTV’s Punk’d, where we watch characters interact with the public selling perfumes and cologne. It’s one of many off-kilter sequences in the film. However, it provides a perceptive look into the characters working in whatever way possible to make money to get by. These scenes help establish the framework of circumstances affecting these characters.

Baker’s filmography is often rooted in real-life. His film “Tangerine,” about two transgender sex workers in Los Angeles, was infamously shot primarily on an iPhone. This technique is used a few times in the case of “The Florida Project,” especially in the climax of the film as Moonee enters Disney World. While “The Florida Project” deals with childhood and adventure, the film also touches on certain unfortunate circumstances. Many times, these scenes are witnessed from the child’s perspective, a subtle tool Baker uses to reinforce these children’s view into the world around them. A particularly heavy scene involves one of Moonee’s friends, Scootee, watching his mother get assaulted by Moonee’s mother.

Dafoe’s character, Bobby, presents a quiet, broken man. Despite his stern exterior, on the inside Bobby sees himself as a protector to the children and a confidant to his guests. However, Bobby comes with his own traits and this cold demeanor is broken when he courts an unexpected child predator away from the children. This is heavy in nature, but one that reveals a protective side to Bobby.

Baker’s style is prevalent in the film, especially in the several key close-ups seen in the film. This technique particularly shines near the end of the film as Moonee breaks from the pressures affecting her up that point. For Baker, the camera moves very much as a bystander as we peek into the lives of Moonee, her mother, and the various residents of the motel. Offering a fresh take on the innocence of childhood and imagination, “The Florida Project” welcomes you in with its characters and makes you want to stay with its heartbreaking yet joyous message.