NYFF 2017: Sean Baker’s The Florida Project

On Film / The Daily — Oct 1, 2017

“Sean Baker follows his 2015 breakout feature Tangerine with another high-energy movie about people whose imaginations are undaunted by living on the margins,” begins Amy Taubin, introducing her interview with the director for Film Comment. “In The Florida Project, six-year-old Moonee (remarkably expressive Brooklynn Prince) and her two best friends spend the summer running wild on the grounds of the Magic Castle, a week-by-week motel just a mile away from Florida’s Disney World. For these children, overgrown weeds, deserted houses, and nearby posh hotels spell adventure, and seen through their eyes and the lenses of Alexis Zabe’s 35mm camera, theirs is a lushly tropical, dazzlingly colorful world.”

“But, of course, life at the motel isn’t a simple tale of pre-adolescent crassness, pastel walls, and whimsy,” writes Cassie da Costa, also for Film Comment. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), “skillfully alternates between chilling and hustling, and enlists Moonee as an accomplice in selling marked-up wholesale perfume in front of a fancy hotel. Later, she must resort to riskier measures to make rent.” As noted in the round of reviews that followed The Florida Project’s premiere in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, but da Costa dissents: “Baker crudely renders his marginalized subjects because while he can imagine their daily realities he cannot fully fathom their inner lives. Jacques Audiard makes this mistake in Rust and Bone, Andrea Arnold in American Honey, and John Lee Hancock in The Blind Side.

Noel Murray, writing for The Week, disagrees: “Baker's film is one of the year's best . . . An inspired mix of Little Rascals hijinks and neorealist art, The Florida Project is clear-eyed about how bad choices (or lack of choices) can condemn some folks to living on the margins. But the movie's also funny, lively, empathetic. Yes, it's a critique of the inadequacies of American consumer culture—tellingly set just outside the Disney resorts. But it also argues emphatically that all kinds of people are worth preserving, even in places that may strike us as tawdry and squalid.”

“Studded with kitschy capitalist detritus (fast-food domes shaped like giant oranges or mermaids) and graced with flashes of detailed yet ephemeral beauty (a fireworks display at night, a pair of children approaching a bovine herd amid tall grass), Baker’s film overflows with euphoria and sadness,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook.

“Moonee romps around the ‘neighborhood’ (really just a motel-dotted track of interstate) with her little pals, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), getting into trouble wherever they can, while motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) plays the Mr. Wilson to their collective Dennis the Menace,” writes April Wolfe for the Village Voice.

“Willem Dafoe's performance as Bobby . . . is so humble that it's hard to believe the guy's been a superstar for several decades,” writes Cosmo Bjorkenheim at Screen Slate. “Bobby receives orders from a significantly younger boss, takes shit from the housing complex's every resident, and clears out disgusting, vacated apartments without ever even kicking a wall in frustration.”

Dafoe’s Bobby “is one of his gentlest characters, though even here we pick up traces of pain in his past,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, “and one glorious shot of him, drawing on a cigarette and gazing out at the bruise-colored dusk, suggests a weariness to match that of the other residents. That is why he indulges Moonee, as she plays hide-and-seek in his office—not because she’s cute (Brooklynn Prince is too brazen for that) but because the rebel in her finds no reason, as yet, to be quashed by experience. Her time, like his, will come.”

“Ambling through this exemplary microcosm of today’s America is such a rich, slyly instructive experience,” writes James Lattimer for Cinema Scope, “that some of the wonder is invariably lost when both Halley and Moonee’s actions start overstepping the mark and a relentless downward spiral kicks in, with the pair soon hurtling towards a horrifically plausible heart of darkness so rapidly that the scenery around them becomes a mere blur.”

“What initially appears to be a ‘Celebration!’ of amorphous youth reveals itself as a pastel-colored horror flick (a feeling further intensified by the ultra-saturated 35mm cinematography of Alexis Zabe, who shot two Carlos Reygadas provocations, Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux) about the easily discarded American poor,” writes Keith Uhlich.

“One pointedly dreamlike episode right at the end shows us both the wonder that these children, living in the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, have missed out on, as well as the sense of togetherness they’ve achieved on their own,” notes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice.

Slant’s Ed Gonzalez: “Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch understand the pull of Disney on young lives and they posit the Magic Castle as a temporary place, whose upkeep feels like a hard, desperate means to keep a dream alive for the young: a pit stop on the way to hanging out with Mickey Mouse. A bitter irony here is that, when the shit hits the fan and Moonee’s eyes open in ways they never have before, she makes a heartbreaking, last-ditch effort to run toward that dream, fulfilling something that her mother could never give her. But I’d like to think, given this girl’s precociousness, that she’s also hellbent on destroying this dream, if only to dream bigger: of a world not so small, after all, and as such not predicated on the self-containment that enables capitalism and turns us into its suckers.”

For Melissa Anderson at 4Columns, “The Florida Project bears out Lillian Gish’s maxim in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), another great film about tyke resilience that plays at the NYFF as part of its Robert Mitchum retrospective: ‘Children are man at his strongest. They abide.’”

More from Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Dustin Chang (ScreenAnarchy), Lawrence Garcia (In Review Online), David Noh (Film Journal International), Mike Ryan (Uproxx), Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com), and E. Oliver Whitney (ScreenCrush).

Hugh Hart (WhereToWatch) and Matt Prigge (Filmmaker) interview Baker, while Gregory Ellwood (Playlist) and Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out) talk with Dafoe.

Updates, 10/2: “The disconnect between the film’s liberated shooting and editing style and the social entrapment actually experienced by its characters gives The Florida Project its indeterminate emotional tenor and ungainly shape,” writes Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot. “Especially considering the film is often fueled by the energy of scampering, screaming children, the harnessing of unwieldy elements represents a high level of cinematic achievement—the camera always manages to be in the right place at the right time, while also showing us things in a distinct, askew manner, always conveying a compelling heightened reality. The easy, dreamy glide of the Steadicam prowling or racing to catch up with the kids combined with those Central Florida bursts of blue, purple, and orange, all set against the reality of encroaching financial destitution, contributes to an overall sense of displacement, fantasy teetering on the edge of collapse.”

Talk Easy host Sam Fragoso talks with Dafoe “about his career, his appreciation for outsiders, and the tricky balancing act of maintaining privacy as a public figure.” (45’01”).

Update, 10/2: The Florida Project “does not feel like a movie made by an adult about kids, but a story told by a kid about her own world,” writes Leonardo Goi for Kinoscope. And it’s “impossible to tell how many of Moonee’s lines were written or improvised on spot. She alternates profanities on par with Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro [1960] with movingly perceptive observations about the grown-ups around her (‘she is about to cry,’ she says observing a Brazilian tourist complaining The Magic Castle is not the Disney World the travel agency had promised: ‘I can always tell when adults are about to cry.’)”

Updates, 10/3: For WhereToWatch, Susan Wloszczyna talks with Baker, Prince, and Vinaite about “how he approaches what he likes to call his pop-verite style of cinema, which allows for ad libs and unexpected events to find their way onto the screen. He also discusses whether he has heard from Disney yet as the movie is about to open on Friday, especially about the closing shot of a familiar iconic image.” And at RogerEbert.com, Nick Allen talks with Baker about “the casting of Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe, creating a fantasy land out of a location decimated by the recession and more.”

Updates, 10/7: “To balance joy and desperation as gracefully as Mr. Baker does—to interweave giddiness and heartbreak—is no easy feat,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times.The Florida Project could easily have been cruel and exploitative, punishing its characters for their wildness and the audience for enjoying it. But the director . . . avoids the traps of condescension and prurience that ensnare too many well-meaning movies about poverty in America.”

But for the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, The Florida Project “is the cinematic antidote to helicopter parenting—and it’s artificially sympathetic to the point of obliviousness. . . . For all the variety of incident in The Florida Project, for all its careful observation of characters, it’s as emotionally inauthentic and fantastic, under the guise of its hard-edged and warmhearted realism, as the Disneyfied realm with which Baker contrasts it.”

At Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore argues that “it's Moonee and Halley to whom The Florida Project belongs, two troublemakers trying to keep all consequences at bay by denying they exist, stocking a shopping cart full of throwaway treats in a dollar store, laughing and whirling around like it's a mystical playland. Which, in that moment, you can believe that it is. But while the power of imagination may be a savior in a Disney movie, it isn't in the sun-washed reality of The Florida Project, which concludes with a touch of poetry that might break you in two. It's not a happy ending, but it is, like the rest of the film, pretty much perfect.”

“Moonee, for all her churlishness, is a sophisticated thinker who seems to understand her station in life enough to adapt,” adds April Wolfe in the Village Voice. “Baker has created an indomitable character who’s at least got a fighting chance.”

“What's refreshing about The Florida Project is that Baker encourages audiences to identify with how Moonee sees herself—as someone who has a blast every day, doing whatever she wants with minimal adult supervision—while still understanding that she'd probably be better off under the care of the state.” Noel Murray for The Week: “It's incredibly rare for an American movie to hold two conflicting thoughts at once, without becoming contrived or didactic. The Florida Project does this over and over, for two hours.”

“Bobby is a generous anomaly,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, “a figure of ordinary, paternal decency. He inspires maybe the funniest, most moving performance of Dafoe’s career, frustration constantly melting under the warm affection this proprietor feels for his cash-strapped residents. That Baker never gives Bobby much in the way of backstory, or even a personal life, strengthens the impression that he’s a kind of stealth directorial surrogate, watching this bustling corner of humanity with a mixture of amusement, exasperation, and, eventually, heartache.”

In Gay City News, Steve Erickson suggests that Jacques Tati’s PlayTime, “which was filmed on an incredibly detailed set teeming with life, seems like an influence, especially when Baker uses long shots of the hotel complex. Baker himself acknowledges Our Gang and The Little Rascals as inspirations. . . . The Florida Project is neo-realism for people who can appreciate both a Robert Rauschenberg exhibit and a Nicki Minaj video.”

“Thanks to a handful of mesmerizing performances and Baker’s deft directing, The Florida Project is a must-see work—and one of the year’s best films,” declares the Atlantic’s David Sims.

For the NYT, Cara Buckley talks with Baker, Dafoe, Prince, and Vinaite. Keith Phipps interviews Baker for Uproxx. And IndieWire’s Eric Kohn talks with Dafoe.

Update, 10/9: The Florida Project is “a reminder that a child’s-eye view necessitates doing more than crouching the camera low to see the world from the POV of someone four feet tall,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “You have to remake the world as an experience. That notion is a key to understanding the oddness of the movie’s final turn, when, all of a sudden, it becomes an outright fantasy seen, of course, from Moonnee’s point of view. I’ll let it surprise you as it did me—I’m still a little thrown by it. Maybe it doesn’t work. But it’s a lesson in how far Baker will go. It’s an adventure.”

Update, 10/11: “With his subjects enraptured by the promises of America’s most commodified utopia,” writes Caroline Madden for Vague Visages, “Baker’s mystifying finale might initially seem to undermine the goals of his critique on our capitalistic and post-economic crisis society, but perhaps it works to preserve Moonee and Jancey as proverbial Peter Pans.”

Updates, 10/12: “It may be impossible to overstate just how wonderful Willem Dafoe is in this film,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “Bobby’s had it up to here dealing with bedbugs and broken ice machines, but he clearly loves these little brats even when they’re driving him nuts. It’s from his clear-eyed perspective that we see The Magic Castle’s ragged edges and the dangers lurking all over what these kids perceive to be a playground. There’s a scene in which Dafoe spots a creeper lurking around the children that ranks with some of the finest, most layered work of his formidable career. But he’s just as indelible in the movie’s lighter moments, like when Bobby’s shooing flamingos out of the driveway and cracking up at his own jokes.”

“At times, The Florida Project may seem to have more episodes than a narrative through line,” writes Marjorie Baumgarten in the Austin Chronicle, “but that seems also true to the occupants of the Magic Kingdom, who believe they’re simply in a transitional state while they’re actually stuck in idle.”

Update, 10/17: “I want to know more about the communities I’m not a part of,” Baker tells the TIFF Review. “I like to show the universal, common links between all of us. That's why I think we’re all trying to tell universal stories, instead of these very specific ‘plight of’ films. Maybe those movies got us to the place where we are, but as we progress and evolve with how we tell stories, they can also lead to contrivance, condescension, and even disrespect.”

Updates, 10/22: “In the realm of American independent filmmakers, Baker has certain affinities with his near-contemporary, Harmony Korine,” suggests J. Hoberman, writing for the New York Review of Books. “Korine is similarly drawn to outcast types and is likewise a regionalist with a taste for outré or derelict landscapes. Korine has also experimented with formats—shot on distressed outmoded videotape, his 2009 Trash Humpers is as radical in its way as was the phone-camera verité of Tangerine. But where Korine is an advocate of shock or transgressive cinema, a less benign John Waters, Baker is a humanist. Korine, for better or worse, is a filmmaker; Baker is primarily a director.”

“Crafting the perfect end to a film is an unenviable task,” writes Corey Atad at Slate. “They’re rare. Many of the best endings provide a special kind of satisfaction, where all the events of the film come together in an inevitable moment of harmonic resolution. Occasionally, though, a filmmaker chooses to go in the opposite direction, to take a leap in a film’s final moments, to jar the audience out of any prescribed sense of expectation, and to challenge them into feeling something more complex. The Florida Project does just that, and the result is as perfect an ending as has graced the screen in years.”

And “throughout its duration, The Florida Project seems to be discovering itself, figuring out its structure as it goes along,” writes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader. “That Baker would suggest that the picture's only beginning just when it's about to end is consistent with his aesthetic project. That project might be described as making time stand still. Like an antithesis of Richard Linklater's Boyhood (which depicted the cumulative effects of time), The Florida Project conveys a sense of endless stasis.”

“I see every filmmaker being seduced by television,” Baker tells Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay. “I’ve been resistant to that for many reasons—the main reason being that I want to make features. I literally want to tell stories between ninety minutes and two-and-a-half hours. That’s the amount of time that I want to deliver a story to the audience. I’m not interested in doing the series thing.”

“When you’re making a film like this in which it was supposed to be, this sort of hybrid,” Baker tells Ray Pride in Newcity, “the approach to it is semi-hybrid in terms of narrative fiction filmmaking, but also using documentary techniques to capture that. You have to be open, you have to be aware of your surroundings and just take advantage of it, use it.”

And you can listen to Ted Johnson’s interview with Baker for Variety (19’45”).

Update, 10/26: In the Stranger, Chase Burns finds that Prince “resonates beyond the twee and cute. At the film's climax, Prince delivers a performance that would make even the surliest curmudgeon cry.”

Update, 10/27: “The mood of The Florida Project varies from wide-eyed delight to jittery shrewdness to weary responsibility, depending on which character we’re following,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “I wish Baker had thought of an ending for The Florida Project; having brought his characters to the point where they have no solutions, he finds none of his own, other than to force the naturally occurring ironies of his setting into a final grand statement. But that’s a two-minute lapse, after nearly two hours of grit, outrage, and beauty.”

Update, 10/30: “Occasionally, the Hollywood industry produces a film that notes the poverty flowing from the neoliberal order, as a ‘permanent underclass’ becomes no more than journalistic jargon taken for granted with a shrug by those sectors of the public who need to pay attention,” writes Christopher Sharrett for Film International. “I think of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River (both 2008—not ironic that these two fine films appear as ‘the market’ collapses) as two distinguished contributions to the cinema about the current age of poverty. There are other conscientious films in the same vein, often with a macho orientation, like Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace (2013). Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an especially welcome edition, certainly for its focus on the lives of children, who affirm life and the need for companionship and play, no matter how dire the situation.”

Updates, 11/3: New interviews with Baker: Kyle Buchanan (Vulture), Jessica Kiang (Playlist), and Danny Leigh (Guardian).

Updates, 11/11: For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, here’s “the best child acting I have seen for years; in its humour and its unforced and almost miraculous naturalism it reminded me of British examples like Ken Loach’s Kes or Bryan Forbes’s Whistle Down the Wind. Steven Spielberg once said: ‘If you over-rehearse kids, you risk a bad case of the cutes.’ But these kids don’t look cute or over-rehearsed or rehearsed at all; they look as if everything they do and every word that comes out of their mouths is unscripted and real.”

For Kate Stables, writing for Sight & Sound, “it’s the film’s sympathetic eye that ensures it doesn’t exoticize the family’s plight, Beasts of the Southern Wild style, or dip into poverty porn. Drunken brawls, pissed-off johns and vicious catfights are simply day-to-day eruptions here, blowing in and out of the motel like the Florida weather. Full of compassion and curiosity about its characters’ fragile lives, this memorable drama establishes Baker as among cinema’s most original chroniclers of childhood.”

“Is America too far gone into fantasy, the film seems to ask, to stare reality in the face?” wonders Alex Denney at AnOther. “Baker, at least, sounds optimistic for the future of socially engaged cinema in the U.S. ‘I think we are starting to do it, in a weird way,’ he says. ‘I’m never gonna say it’s a responsibility, but it is nice to see filmmakers take a socio-political approach to their filmmaking. We’re living in troubling times, and, yes, we still need entertainment. But why not use our entertainment in a way that helps?’”

Rebecca Liu for Another Gaze: “Baker is not naïve about the world in which his two characters live; a lesser director may take this as an invitation to engage in tragedy porn. Baker opts instead to serve the humanity of Moonee and Halley by celebrating how they build their own worlds and kingdoms on their own terms, while remaining candid about the ways in which their flights of fancy are tragically constrained by economic and social realities. And that makes The Florida Project both deeply human and sublime.”

Sophie Monks Kaufman talks with Baker for Little White Lies.

Update, 11/12: “A scene in which the kids venture into derelict buildings (yellow, green and pink) reminded me of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, another Florida-set film that found kaleidoscopic poetry amid streets blighted by poverty,” writes Mark Kermode in the Observer. “There’s a touch of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher or Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant in the way Baker and co-writer/producer Chris Bergoch embrace Moonee’s defiant perspective, making us feel her joy and pain with all the raw urgency of youth. Fans of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, too, will notice a kindred spirit in the portrayal of Halley, played with remarkable candor by first-timer Bria Vinaite . . . It all adds up to another superbly sympathetic portrait of marginalized experience from a filmmaker whose great triumph is that he never feels like a tourist.”

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