Having already played at Cannes, THE FLORIDA PROJECT had serious buzz around it coming into this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and rightly so. It is a movie like no other, one that opens your eyes to an issue all around us that no one talks about. Once you add Oscar-worthy performances from an ensemble cast of first-time actors surrounding Willem Dafoe, including a breakout performance by a seven year old Brooklynn Prince, we have one of the most talked about movies of the season.
The film is set in a budget motel and its vicinity just outside Disney World near Orlando, Florida. While the themes in the film are very much of an adult nature, it is more or less seen from the perspective of a group of elementary school age kids who live there. They don't have much to do, and don't go to school, so they mostly roam the vicinity getting up to all levels of mischief. The parents run the gamut when it comes to parenting styles -- all love their kids but some are better at parenting than others. Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite), a struggling stripper, rebels against authority and instills this in her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Moonee’s best friends Jancey and Christopher are a little better behaved, but all get up to no good at one point or another. As the kids get into trouble, relationships between the parents grow and dissolve, depending on who's perceived to be a bad influence. The hotel manager, Bobby, (Willem Dafoe) is usually annoyed with the kids running amok, but at the same time acts as a surrogate father.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT was directed by Sean Baker, known for the shot-on-iPhone TANGERINE. THE FLORIDA PROJECT used regular cameras but its aesthetic is unique, and well matched to its subject matter. There are no directorial flourishes to distract, though every choice has a subtle function to better immerse you in the story. The run down pastels and frequent thunderstorms place us solidly in Florida. The camera work is in an almost documentary style, which makes you feel like a bystander in this environment. To achieve that feeling, the camera often lingers on extended scenes of children playing, or is just removed from the action in the distance. Many shots are from a child's height to subtly evoke their perspective. The focus is solidly on character and for lack of a better term, world-building, until lives explode in a crescendo once the stakes are set.
The film raises serious questions to which there are no easy answers. Who's at fault when people are just hanging on? When someone is a bad parent, when do you step in? How do you pull kids away from their friends when they are the innocent ones, and it is the parents who are the bad influence? The film doesn't push any one viewpoint, instead presenting very complex characters who are neither perfect nor evil.
I’m from Florida myself, and it bugs me to no end when productions bring in Hollywood actors to put on bad accents and pretend to be from the region. THE FLORIDA PROJECT doesn’t have this problem. Not a second of the film feels inauthentic. In fact, just about everyone in the movie are first time actors — so much so that the IMDB page is mostly incomplete. After the screening, director Sean Baker mentioned that they spent weeks interviewing folks at similar hotels before writing the film. The preparation and casting really shine through to make a story that feels fresh, real, and timely.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT isn't going to be a blockbuster, but it is a must-see if you care about film. TIFF is a festival of some of the best films from all over the world, and this is one of the best of the best