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The Florida Project: a rich film about poor people

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Behold the splendor of The Florida Project, an exhilarating new film from among the most promising filmmakers we have. Sean Baker’s been making movies since the early 2000s, but I and most everyone else first got a glimpse of the writer and director with his 2015 breakout feature Tangerine. Shot entirely on location in Los Angeles on a couple of iPhones, Tangerine explores a day in the life of trans sex workers and their customers.

With this latest effort, Baker’s established himself as a special kind of filmmaker. His penchant for place-based, conversational narrative reminds me of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, combined with the strange characters of Harmony Korine, à la Kids and Gummo, and some early David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls) for gorgeous backgrounds contrasted with a tragic hyperrealism.

With The Florida Project, the previously low budget, guerilla filmmaker has been given a 35mm camera, some established actors and a wide distribution, and I’m pleased to report he hasn’t squandered the opportunity. The picture stars Willem Dafoe as Bobby, manager of a weekly motel in Orlando, Florida, where downtrodden tenants stay indefinitely and perilously for $35 a night. Chief among the guests are the young, tattooed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), her precocious daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and a rotating cast of her little kid friends.

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Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince star in The Florida Project.

The Florida Project offers a rare, painfully human exploration into a corner of society we rarely get to see in film: poor people. And why should it be so rare? Millions of Americans hang on to the fringes of society by the thinnest of threads, but nearly all of our stories star rich or middle-class people. Drug addicts and prostitutes are rarely afforded the luxury to sit around writing Hollywood-produced screenplays, so what are we left with but a disproportionate number of East Coast tales set in expensive apartments starring spoiled people with fake problems?

But here we are with a glorious exception, so I’ll go ahead and stop complaining. In Halley, we have a young mother in over her head. Her past remains a mystery, but we can reasonably guess that life up to this point has not been kind. As a result, she’s developed a tough-as-nails exterior. She manipulates, steals and generally grifts for money, all the while rebelling against any kind of authority and repeatedly spitting on hands that feed her. The DSM-V might say she has an overgrown case of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and when it comes to Moonee, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. This is a fascinating case study in how dysfunction snowballs through generations, but be careful. It’s easy to judge these characters, but if you’re watching with an open mind, there’s a lot to admire and even love in Halley’s resilience and commitment to her family.

And then there’s the career-defining performance from Dafoe, an actor who never lets me down (Spiderman doesn’t count for some reason). In Bobby we have a man who really seems to have found his calling in a thankless job, serving the unsavory misfits who need him most.

As an aside: I don’t recommend watching trailers for films, unless you enjoy spoilers and/or being lied to. Spots for The Florida Project make this look like a light-hearted romp through the simplicity of childhood. In fact, at nearly two hours, this is a bleak story with a meandering structure that’s often a challenge to endure—but trust me: The emotional payoff is so incredibly worth your time.

The Florida Project opens at the Roxy Fri., Nov. 17.

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