Film review: Sean Baker’s The Florida Project

Justin Secor

The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe, is the fourth feature project by director Sean Baker. Baker’s direction of the film is deft and poised. It is set in Orlando and deals with the lives of a working poor mother (Bria Vinate) and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). It follows their experience living out of a trashy motel run by Bobby (Defoe). The mother and daughter have to scrounge for money and do what they can to get by in the world. The film deals with poverty, sex work and familial relationships in America. It does so within a story that has many well-timed moments of humanity, and the film expertly explores the struggles of the characters.

Baker’s last film, Tangerine (2015), was notable in that it was the first film in recent memory that not only featured transgender characters, but had trans actors portray them. Considering that it was shot on iPhones and made on a budget of $100,000, it was still a professionally crafted film.

The Florida Project is something of a spiritual successor to Tangerine. However, The Florida Project is shot on 35mm film rather than iPhone video, which makes the film a joy to watch. The colors of the film pop out to the viewer as the story unfolds. It was clear that the cinematography was a high priority for for the filmmakers, and it shows in the amount of care they put into almost every shot. Baker took good care of telling the story and approached the characters and their struggles with an incredibly adept touch, which is especially good to see since the film tackles some touchy subject matter.

Dafoe is a standout actor, and this comes across in The Florida Project. He portrays the authoritative, yet caring qualities of his character. This film also has surprisingly good child actors, all of whom successfully come off as children trying to understand the world. Among these child actors, it is Prince who is the most talented by far. She is wonderful to watch in both humorous and emotional scenes. The rest of the supporting cast is spellbinding as well, and there isn’t a single poor performance in the film.

There are some glaring issues to the film, however. The first problem is that there are a few continuity errors. It’s a problem but it’s excusable. However, the biggest, most drastic issue is in the ending. It comes out of left field and destroys all of the tension that the film has built up and smashes it indiscriminately with a wrecking ball. It is one of the worst endings to a film that I have seen in ages, and I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015). It was absolutely atrocious. It completely soured my experience of the film and left me asking out loud in the car as I drove home, “Why Sean, why would you do this to your film? Did you run out of money? Did you just stop caring? Why?” It was just disappointing to see this film and the stories of these characters end in a way that didn’t represent the care and understanding that was put into the rest of the film.

I ultimately recommend the film, because it’s otherwise fantastic, but I add the caveat that you leave the theatre about 1 minute before it ends. Because of this, I can only give this film a 7 out of 10.