October 13, 2017

'The Florida Project'

By Carl Kozlowski *
The Florida Project. Credit: A24 Films.
The Florida Project. Credit: A24 Films.

It’s almost impossible to find a truly fresh take on American life after more than a century of cinema, but filmmaker Sean Baker has managed with his third film to again present slices of life from the underbelly of society that are often if not completely overlooked.

After his 2012 debut “Starlet” and 2015 follow-up “Tangerine,” Baker's latest, “The Florida Project,” builds on his ultra-realistic, cinema verite approach while taking the action out of Los Angeles and into a somewhat more innocent terrain, following a group of poor children through a long and lazy summer while they’re stuck living with their largely irresponsible parents in a cheap motel in Orlando. Baker pulls off a remarkable feat here, as the minimal plot seems to richochet among random incidents, yet builds to an emotionally resonant ending that will be hard for viewers to shake.

“Florida” largely centers on a trio of 7-year-old kids led by a girl named Moonee who engage in mischievous activities such as spitting on cars from the balcony of their motel and panhandling change to buy ice cream cones.

The kids have foul mouths often played for laughs, developing their bad behavior by having almost no supervision from their parents. Moonee’s mom is a stripper with tattoos (a job only briefly discussed, and not shown) and a bad green dye job in her hair, and the other parents are barely more respectable.

The one true authority figure in the entire film is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe as a kindhearted middle-aged man who wants the best for his tenants but is always just one step ahead of complete anarchy breaking out in the complex. The childhood mecca of Disney World is in the same city, just miles away, but these children may as well be living on the other side of the planet.

Dafoe is the one recognizable actor in the cast, building on Baker’s tendency to hire complete unknowns in the interest of immersing viewers in his characters’ lives. It’s a beautiful performance that combines world-weary exasperation with genuine concern for the kids, which most clearly emerges when he has to handle a creepy old man who appears on the property and shows too much interest in the young residents.

Bobby is also the key to leading viewers into the deeper point of “Florida”: showing the lives of people teetering on the edge of homelessness as they hustle to pay the weekly rent on a motel room. Moonee’s mom not only strips (that job is discussed, not shown), but also buys cheap perfume wholesale and shakes down tourists to buy bottles at a profit. Always a day late in paying the rent, she tries to charm Bobby into greater understanding, but eventually true reckoning is heading her way.

“Florida” was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, both for Baker’s ability to draw vibrant performances from totally unknown children and young adults, and for shining a light on the silent American epidemic of people who are living one wrong step away from homelessness. While nearly everyone knows someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, “Florida” reveals what it’s like to survive without an actual paycheck at all.

The seemingly meandering pace of “Florida” makes this a film that the masses will overlook, but those who can handle arthouse movies and give it a chance will be richly rewarded with a new viewpoint on life and an appreciation for what they have. It’s an arthouse movie playing in only a few cities right now, but spreading nationwide in the coming weeks. If you want something different, it’s definitely worth a try for adults.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.