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‘The Florida Project’ review: Sean Baker’s latest effort is humanist exploitation pop art realism

Sam Mauro writes that ‘The Florida Project’ is social realism disguised as pop art. So why not just make it pop art?

Props to Sean Baker, at least, for shooting The Florida Project on film. With 2015’s bottle rocket screwball breakthrough Tangerine, the festival circuit labeled the film with the unfortunate informal tagline of “the iPhone movie,” though the dialogue eventually circled around to the meatier discourse on representation in cinema. A blitzkrieg Christmas comedy following two trans women of color on the Sunset Strip’s sex work industry, the film received equal parts praise and backlash for its spotlight on the L.A. nobody talks about.

Fast forward to this past May, when The Florida Project stormed the Cannes Film Festival. Though it failed to scoop up any awards, the film was showered with glowing reviews. Set around an Orlando motel filled with a collection of extremely poor outcasts, the film follows Mooney (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her friends on a wandering, tangential journey through a world never given its own iconography, its own recognition.

As a Tangerine agnostic, the marketing leading up to The Florida Project kept expectations in that same limbo. (As smart as it was to flip the script on the follow-up by making such a visually gorgeous work distinctly classical.) Alexis Zabe lights the film so perfectly, plaster walls and muted, damp climates, communicating the weather as truly normalized to the character’s interior expectations. This is some of the showiest work of the year, to be sure, but it is also some of the best.

Here’s the thing: this is social realism disguised as pop art, so why not just make it pop art? The imagery of the Magic Kingdom, the sense of place, is irrevocably tied to the capitalist institutions, yet the movie chooses to visually root its more somber moments in the palette of arthouse poverty porn. The most striking elements of Tangerine were the aimless, flourishing interludes, where the simple act of walking down the street was fully voyeuristic, and thus reclaimed and brought to life the kind of attention paid to the sex workers in real life, glaring L.A. sunset and all. The issue with combining the quotidian and gritty with such vibrancy is clearly meant to reflect the tone, but the aesthetic awareness of the surroundings proves, inversely, too cute for Baker’s central conceit. The kids have no idea what’s going on around them.

Willem Dafoe, as the motel’s manager, soars above the entire film. One of the most skilled and innately personable actors in Hollywood, Dafoe’s performances appear to be siblings, all akin to one another in their distinctively shared mannerisms and operations, yet so wildly disparate in their emotional range and dramatic function. Though Bobby is written essentially as the motel’s patron saint, Dafoe renders him parts civil servant, father figure, nuisance, hardened wise-ass, stage manager, and ringmaster.

The kids are adorable, acting out obnoxious, shrill, totally cute interludes, the non-actors led by the magnetic Brooklyn Prince. Baker’s main contradiction, that empathetic objectification, works best and most interestingly here. The innately compelling notion of observing children as they go about the world is so endearing, and Baker’s commitment to keeping the children as dynamic and egocentric as possible puts the film’s visual language to use with what many critics have called the “entertainment” of such a relentlessly bleak film. 

The film’s greatest disservice falls upon Mooney’s young mother Hailee (Bria Vinaite). There’s a fascinating interview from the festival circuit where Baker describes looking at Bria Vinaite’s Instagram, wanting to capture that “free-spirited” attitude onscreen. Baker sees her for an individual quality, a single trait which defines a character so fully it rings hollow, from a performer who shows such produce if, under different circumstances, were allowed to flourish and operate in a more varied range. Hailee serves as both a maternal and sororal figure for Mooney, and although the film is especially intelligent on her temporal space in the film – the effect her mother’s schedule, specifically, has on Mooney is the closest the film comes to structural sophistication – Baker has no real sense of their interactions; Unlike the spontaneity of the kid’s interactions, Hailee and Mooney’s feel railroaded, speaking not to shared experiences but rather the most overwritten and underdeveloped parts of the film’s skeleton. The mirroring between the two’s attitude only comes across as a function of the script’s paring down of Hailee to her impoverished standing, defined only in that context, even for herself.

For all the film’s focus on class, it has no interest in interrogating late capitalism, racism, or media, which, admittedly, caters to a very specific audience. Consider the people of color who inhabit the film, gesturally outside any sociopolitical climate. So much of the film looks like the greatest collection of Tumblr posts, VSCO filters, Instagram stories, any number of soon to be outdated forums for a quintessentially modern vision (and most of which are dominated by specific visions of whiteness). That this is guided by some vague, ill-defined sense of humanist cinema, a genre which itself was borne out of privilege, arrogance and a lack of context for various cinematic forms, where the film’s political concerns are broad and caricatured, its characters loose nothings, a window dressing against which actors struggle aided only by personality. Baker never comes close to capturing even the multi-faceted display of iconography on Vinaite’s Instagram feed, let alone a more intimate assemblage of portraiture.

The ending feels like the inevitable evolution – an aesthetically divergent, manipulative, moving, artistically dubious finale that feels like a pure fantasy on a visual and dramatic level. The desperation of the catharsis is perhaps not wise enough, thanks to the film’s guiding commitment to childish subjectivities, but it is worth noting that this near-satirical ending (or perhaps it feels as such just because it’s the only time the film’s thesis proves biting) does not conflate the children’s ignorance with resilience. The system will swallow these kids up whole, both Hailee and Mooney alike. Baker holds a generic but resonantly shrill documentation of a childhood oblivious to its own dire, poverty-stricken backdrop. The work’s fatalism is at least pointedly opposed to glib contrast, but The Florida Project fails to synthesize the two beyond a naive sort of exploitation and representational displacement.

Written by Sam Mauro

Sam Mauro is a high school student from Philadelphia. Though Sam fancies themself drift-compatible with Dakota Johnson, nobody takes them seriously, which is probably how it should be. Sam plays the accordion and wishes they were a kindergarten teacher.

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