Cannes 2017: Sean Baker’s The Florida Project

On Film / The Daily — May 23, 2017

“If you told me you could make a modern Christmas classic largely set outside a doughnut shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, centered on transgender prostitutes and shot on iPhones, I wouldn’t have believed you,” begins Ben Kenigsberg at RogerEbert.com. “But Sean Baker follows that unlikely 2015 triumph, Tangerine, with The Florida Project, another raucous portrait of a community on the margins.” It’s “set in and around the Magic Castle Motel, a seedy motor lodge on the outskirts of Disney World. The motel's residents live in chronic semi-homelessness in the shadow of what—as Baker noted at the Q&A—is supposed to be the ‘most magical place on earth.’ . . . For six-year-old Moonee (the exuberant Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, in a star-making, movie-stealing performance), the motel and its surroundings are an idyllic and largely consequence-free summer playland.”

“Ken Loach and Tex Avery never had a chance to collaborate on a film together, but the manic, high-energy and ultimately heartbreaking social drama The Florida Project more than suffices,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. “Baker (working once again with co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch), has lost none of his fire and exuberance working with a larger budget and some well-known cast members. Indeed, Willem Dafoe, as the reluctant father-figure manager at the Orlando motel where this movie is set, gives one of the best film performances of his entire career.”

“The film adheres to the flighty, anarchic whims of its protagonists, this time tracking them in gorgeous 35mm shot by Alexis Zabe, whose day-glo Florida facades and pastel clouds fizz off the screen,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “As Moonee’s mother (played with acerbic brio by Bria Vinaite) hits harder times, the clouds roll in, and the camera gets even closer to its subjects, as if to reveal worries we couldn’t see at a distance. But the film’s finale, a more effective dream ballet than anything nominated for an Oscar this year, revisits Baker’s digital-guerrilla style in a stunning escape to the Magic Kingdom itself. It’s manic and beautiful, and a perfect, if impossible resolution to Moonee’s impossible situation.”

“It feels like his most epic and profoundly affecting film to date,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “And it’s not that it looks expensive or that the story is broader in scope than usual. More that it offers a trenchant and compassionate political statement about the condition of working class America without once resorting to bald point making or cliché.”

And Screen’s Tim Grierson assures us that “this isn’t a cynical example of so-called ‘poverty porn.’”

“Baker indulges just a little too much time shooting his young hyperactive actors in off-key locations and perhaps not enough on their character development or narrative arcs,” suggests Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage.

But for Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, The Florida Project is “rooted in that transcendent moment of childhood where almost anything you encounter—a field of weeds, an abandoned house—is tinged with wonder.”

And it “further cements Baker’s status as one of the most innovative American directors working today,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, “but he’s also an essential advocate for the stories this country often doesn’t get to see.”

Guy Lodge opens his interview with Baker for Variety by congratulating him on his first Cannes selection. “The lineup this year is so exciting for a cinephile, especially in Directors’ Fortnight. I actually feel like I’m living a weird little dream, because I’m in the same section as Abel Ferrara and Bruno Dumont—both directors who had an influence on this particular film.”

Updates, 5/24: “The infectious joy of a long childhood summer is brilliantly and boldly brought to life,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “unfolding, like Baker’s vital last film Tangerine, in a vivid present tense. (Is there any director now working less in thrall to the sentimental seduction of nostalgia?) But the deceptive intelligence of The Florida Project is how immersive this bouncy-castle reality is while sitting exactly on top of the drawn-out, unremarked tragedy that is life on the margins of respectable, solvent society.”

The Florida Project never dips into hard-knock-life miserablism,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “What’s perhaps most miraculous about it is the way it stays true to the real challenges facing what the writer-director has called ‘the hidden homeless’ while also maintaining a mood of a vibrant, funny celebration. It’s a movie that loves its characters deeply—so much so that it even survives its hasty, possibly unfinished ending, a flight of fancy that feels just a little less misjudged for coming from a place of protective affection.”

“Willem Dafoe is terrific as Bobby,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “What saves the movie's sobering latter developments, giving it an emotional wallop that overrides the flaws, is partly the sadness playing across Dafoe's face as Bobby watches from the sidelines.”

Updates, 5/25: “Come to this event often enough and you eventually learn the danger of making definitive pronouncements that you may regret months, weeks or even days later,” writes Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times. “So I’ll try to be as measured as I can when I say that I haven’t seen a more thrillingly alive movie at Cannes this year than The Florida Project.

“One of the best films playing at Cannes,” agrees Manohla Dargis, dispatching back to the New York Times.

Update, 5/26: “From Pather Panchali to Kes and Chop Shop, rendering a wonky child’s-eye view of the world, and in particular of poverty, is nothing new (although most tend to be boys’ stories),” writes Isabel Stevens for Sight & Sound. “Here the off-kilter, unusual, matter-of-fact observations from a very young child (as opposed to a teen or pre-teen, where disillusionment has already taken hold) bring a fresh perspective, realism and humor to well-worn territory that too often drowns in pity, sentiment or demonization. . . . What’s particularly welcome about Baker’s film is that, while there is some very inventive framing of the kids at play, it’s not overly lyrical (unlike Andrea Arnold’s American Honey). There is one brief sunset; otherwise The Florida Project is filmed in the glare of full sunlight, rather than romantic magic-hour tones.”

Updates, 5/27: “Baker’s latest is by all means a strong follow-up” to Tangerine, writes Blake Williams for Filmmaker. “No one comes out unscathed . . . and if there’s one clear flaw in the film’s design, it’s in its presentation of Moonee’s fate. There’s no space for optimism after wiping away one’s tears to climb Magic Mountain, and assuming ambivalence feels unnecessarily cynical.”

A24 has picked up U.S. distribution rights, report Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang for Variety.

Update, 5/31: For the Playlist, Jordan Ruimy talks with Baker “about, what I consider to be, the best film of Cannes 2017.”

Updates, 7/4: Looking back on Cannes in the new issue of Film Comment, Kent Jones describes The Florida Project as “a revelatory experience, both in and of itself and because of the fact that it so fully realized the promise of American place-specific reality-based fiction cinema after so many years of films with intriguing passages and situations that never quite add up to an entire satisfying movie.”

For Amy Taubin, “the garish sun-blasted color of the cheap motel buildings and the grassy lots where the kids play, as if they are young animals learning to go on the run because that may well be all the future holds for them, captures the attention better than the twists of any narrative—not that there isn’t a narrative here, though it’s all but hidden until the heartbreaking end.”

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