The initial reviews for The Florida Project suggest a digital sociology experiment rather than a successful narrative film. Watching Sean Baker’s story about scrappy kids and their parents trying to survive in the third-rate motels clustered around Walt Disney World was an enervating experience for me. It should have worked: the material is promising, suggesting an approach similar to what Victor Nuñez had wrought in Ulee’s Gold and Ruby in Paradise; writer-director Baker’s previous film Tangerine had a bawdy humor and, shot entirely on iPhones, made the most of its rudimentary construction; and the title itself, the generic name given to the theme park during its 1960s planning phase, buzzes with possibilities. But the result is a ungainly mess. Baker hasn’t a clue about pacing or the direction of actors, which is hell on the audience, for there are few things more hellish than being stuck with brats. The crushing two hours in which The Florida Project insists on telling its vaporous story is akin to babysitting caffeinated kids at the Magic Kingdom for an afternoon with no parent in sight. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t wait to leave.
The Florida Project gets one thing right: the increasingly hardscrabble existence of the hospitality industry in the Kissimmee area. The opening of the Osceola Parkway in the late nineties decimated hotel managers like Bobby (Willem Dafoe); where before visitors to the Disney theme parks inched several miles up or down U.S. 192 and its miserable traffic, now they bypass it entirely, a straight fifteen-minute shot to Disney’s doorstep. Nevertheless, many of these motels boast themes, clean pools, regular maintenance, and maid service; they aren’t flophouses yet. Enter the Magic Castle Inn & Suites, where Moonee (Brooklynn Price) and her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) eke out an existence. When for the sake of the rent Halley isn’t hoodwinking tourists into buying perfume in the parking lots of neighboring hotels she’s partying with a friend who gets her free breakfast from the diner at which she works. Mooney spends those broiling summer days hanging with Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spitting on cars from balconies, eating ice cream, being nuisances. Then Scooty’s dad forbids him from playing with Mooney. She needs a replacement. The older woman on whose car she’s spit in The Florida Project‘s opening moments has a granddaughter, the more demure Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
So far as plot goes, that’s about it, but The Florida Project‘s episodic nature doesn’t crimp it. From Pather Panchali to The 400 Blows the last century has given countless examples of movies chronicling the adventures of street kids. But these children are so obnoxious that even Mooney’s cutting the power at the Magic Castle just cuz she can fails to resonate as an innocuous oh-those-golden-days-of-childhood moment; I just wanted to belt her. Baker doesn’t modulate their performances; Mooney and Jancey screech and holler and laugh. Dafoe has the worst of it. As Bobby, he plays Goodness Incarnate. He lets Halley slide on the rent, indulges Mooney, and knows every guest’s name. Taking into account that his clientele lives a step above the poverty line, it’s a wonder he hasn’t been fired or had his hotel shut down; with his good cheer he should be working at a Magic Kingdom gift shop. Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe are less reluctant to objectify Halley, often shot in unflattering close-ups and harsh light. Baker’s intention is clear: we can’t blame children for the mistakes of their parents. But what is on screen has the opposite effect: awful parents produce awful moppets. Infatuated with the children, Baker identifies with them.
But what most disappointed this native Floridian who visits the Disney area yearly is The Florida Project‘s anonymity. Baker and Zabe capture the colors of this landscape – those violent purples and sinister oranges coaxed out by unrelenting sound against sudden flaring clouds – rescued by hysterical overdevelopment but none of the character. The tracts of urban space ravished by Zabe’s camera could’ve been shot in Sarasota, Everglades City, or, hell, Tacoma. Central Florida weather in the summer has a sinister volatility: sun-damaged mornings surrender to torrential rains and lightning storms, with the humidity at all times sulphuric in intensity. And noisy. At all times.
I suspect The Florida Project will play better for audiences unacquainted with Central Florida and for whom the idea of spending money on such kitsch is laughable in itself. It avoids one mortal sin: despite the surfeit of intrusive closeups, Baker doesn’t err by romanticizing poverty. The camera sits, like a guest invited to stand by the door but not enter, as it captures the meticulousness with which Magic Castle permanent guests have decorated, not to say stuffed, their rooms with toaster ovens, kitchenettes, plastic hangers, bags of chips, blankets serving as shades to keep that horrible sun at bay. The film allows characters to nibble at the margins, like Sandy Kane’s vulgar Gloria, another Magic Castle resident, who insists on topless sunbathing while her corpuscles pump several gallons of McCormick vodka across her cheerful system. Still, gimme last year’s American Honey, also about kids left to their own devices but lighter, not to mention defter about situating its kids in a milieu.
But The Florida Project remains the most depressing drag – the kind of drag that makes me wonder if the modest Tangerine was a fluke (the last sequence is such a travesty that I wonder if the film’s swooning critics walked out of the picture before it). If The Florida Project is a hit, though, Baker will be back, emboldened by success, chastened by failure, or, I fear, emboldened by failure.