These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. But let’s go anyways!
The Florida Project revolves around a single mother and her young daughter who live in a cheap motel just outside Walt Disney World. The movie is meandering and slowly paced. In really has even less of a plot than Baker’s last film, Tangerine. It certainly wasn’t the plot, sparse as it was, that made Tangerine good, but The Florida Project lacks the raw viscerality of Tangerine. What Baker continues to do here is capture the rhythms of a life that most of us have never known anything about. This movie focuses itself on people who exist day to day, making just enough money every day to survive the next by cutting corners, stealing when they can get away with it, letting the bills stack up, moving somewhere else when they have to. Willem Dafoe is very good, good as he’s been in years, as the long-suffering motel manager; it’s a very subtle and restrained performance, but he creates a character that is very complicated. He’s strict and intimidating, but he ultimately cares too much; he has a deep vein of empathy that a man in his position can’t afford to have and you’ll never forget the look on his face the last time we see him. Bria Vinaite gives a genuinely star-making performance as the single mother at the heart of the movie; it’s unbelievable to me that this is her feature film debut so assured and fearless is she in the role. She’s rude, profane, offensive, deceptive, violent (brutally so in one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes). She has only one virtue: her love for her daughter is true. There are moments of real pain in her performance, but when she looks at her daughter, her smile is real and unforced and those moments of happiness born of love, not of circumstance, are very moving. Brooklynn Prince is getting a lot of praise for her incredibly naturalistic performance as the six-year-old daughter and she definitely nails the energy and hilarity and joy of childhood perfectly in a totally un-self-conscious way. She fumbles it pretty badly in the final scene, however, where it falls on her to have a really profound emotional moment that is really, I think, simply beyond the reach of all but the most preternatural of child actors. Still, while you can’t blame Prince, it is the climactic moment of the film and those last five minutes or so mostly sink. Baker still has a great eye for colors and framing. He’s shooting on film here, so the movie is, I think, a bit staid, particularly when it’s following Prince who is pure energy and I really longed for some of the jittery twitch of Tangerine, shot entirely digitally. In a rather surprising move, Baker returns to that digital film for the very last silent shots of the movie, a long series of shots following some characters and it makes me wonder if he didn’t miss that in the body of the movie as well. Still, if the drama falls flat toward the end and the movie lacks energy, it’s still a compelling film, buoyed by a couple of genuinely marvelous lead performances. It ends up capturing natural rhythms and realistic emotions in a way that stays with the viewer. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a solid drama with quite a few comedic bits that work as well. After the full-on masterpiece of Tangerine, is this a sophomore slump? A bit of one, but not as bad as Trey Edward Shults’. Still, Baker’s a singular talent and I’m excited to see what’s next. 3 stars.
tl;dr – great performances & a real sense of atmosphere make up for a lack of energy and a disappointing climax; as sophomore slumps go, this one is still pretty good. 3 stars.