‘The Florida Project’: Lack of focus wastes talented cast

Dafoe’s earnest performance can’t save misguided film.

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The Florida Project has good intentions, a fine cast, but ends up saying very little that we didn’t already know.

Sean Baker co-wrote and directed this feature about a young Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) growing up in the slummier regions of Florida at The Magic Castle hotel, right next to the magical confines of Disney World. A play on the Philadelphia photographer Jacob Riis’ classic quote: “Where there is church, the devil lives next door.”

For Moonee, the world is a giant playground and full of opportunities to create mischief with her friends (Valeria Cotto’s Jancey and Christopher Riveria’s Scooty) while bonding with her troublesome mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, the true breakout star of the film). Then there’s the stern yet kindhearted hotel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Right off the bat, Baker establishes that the kids in this film aren’t your normal darling angels, when they spit on a stranger’s car repeatedly for ten minutes. This pales in comparison to the other things these kids do in the film, which includes setting a fire in an abandoned hotel and messing with the Wifi in the hotel, much to the chagrin of Bobby. Calling them rebellious is selling them short. These kids make Dennis the Menace look like a harmless do-gooder.

Have I hooked you yet? No. Well, that’s because not much happens in this movie. There is no central plot point or general lever to swing down on in the two hour film. It’s a couple weeks in the life of the other side of the human population: the broke yet good time seeking freeloaders who scrap for every penny and hope for a handout since they spent their cash on hair dye and cigarettes.

There is no real plot. A subplot with Bobby’s son (late addition Caleb Landry Jones) goes nowhere and is dumped midway through the film. Small scenes involving a pedophile and a rift between friends carry ferocity, but they don’t propel the film enough. They are tiny specs in a movie full of setup, but no follow-through.

The Florida Project would have made for a great 8-10 hour mini-series on HBO or Showtime, so perhaps the story could expand and breathe into something unique and complete. Instead, the end just slams the door on you without any sense of closure.

Sure, there’s something about the isolation that goes on in a kid’s mind, especially when their parents make poor choices. A kid has little idea what is right or wrong until their parent sets the perimeters, but a thousand films have showed us that and layered it into a better story.

The only thing that makes this film recommendable is the acting. Dafoe is strong as usual, imbuing Bobby with a quiet dignity and grace that unleashes the hunger for his backstory instead of merely existing as a stand-in character. Vinaite is a force to reckon with and gives Halley something extra. Prince challenges your patience with Moonee, but creates a dual-sided character instead of a typical bratty kid. The cast is authentic, but they are running around a remote landscape with no real plan.

I’d save your ten bucks for something more complete and true, like Blade Runner 2049 or Lucky. Catch The Florida Project on Blu Ray as a parental advisory: how NOT to raise your kids.

There’s ambition in Baker’s film, but his film lacks focus and closure to require theater viewing. If I were you, I’d wait.

Author: D. Buffa

A regular guy who feels a journalistic hunger to tell the news. I blog because its wired into my brain to write what I think in print. I offer an opinion. A solo tour here. Take regular stories and offer my spin on them. Sports, film, television, music, fatherhood, culture, food, and so on. Commentary on everything. A St. Louis native and Little Rock resident who wants to write just to keep the hands fresh and ready.

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