NYFF Film Review: ‘The Florida Project’ Glows In Newcomer Bria Vinaite

2017 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Sean Baker bottles the aura of the underprivileged Florida culture with his raw, and at times harrowing “The Florida Project.”  While the cast of characters all remain in touch with their deep-rooted feelings of survival and promise, when a film is full of unlikable and hard-pressed figures, it’s difficult to scale your own investment into their well-being.  All this doesn’t take away from the strong performances from its cast, in particular newcomer Bria Vinaite who unleashes the fury of a single mother misguided by own attempts at survival.

“The Florida Project,” tells the story of 6-year-old Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklyn Prince), who creates mischief and adventure over one summer.  Guided by her rebellious but caring mother Halley (played by Vinaite) and the manager of the motel in which they live (played by Willem Dafoe), she makes and loses friends along the way, all within living in the shadow of Disney World.

As we make our way through co-writer/director Sean Baker‘s filmography, he seems keenly focused on the struggles of the less fortunate.  As explored with his last feature “Tangerine,” we are sitting on the soldiers of our main characters as they interact in their day-to-day activities.  While that gives the viewer insight into what drives them, it’s hard to gather an investment when their daily routines are not driven by the desire to be better.  As we learn of Moonee’s lack of guidance, while fixating on her own loss of innocence, “The Florida Project” ends up feeling more like an extended episode of “The Maury Povich Show” with disastrous consequences than any hard-hitting drama.

The marketing of the film is also problematic because as the trailer would suggest, we would be in store of a lighter sit at the movies, with expected dramatic undertones.  The film completely socks you across the head for its entire runtime as we are put through the ringer of characters that can’t seem to escape their own environments.  Perhaps the expectations were too focused on wanting a few chuckles, by the end of the feature, I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief of disengaging from these people, and wanting to never return.

Where Baker does well, as seen in most of his features thus far, is in the performances he draws from his actors.  Brooklyn Prince uses her own adorableness to execute the incorruptibility that Moonee is desperate to hold onto.  Her final scenes, in particular, is where she really gets a hold on what the actions of everyone around her will cost her.

Willem Dafoe‘s work lends itself to the mercy of how much we like his character.  In a film that’s full of pretty despicable people, including children, we are able to come up for air when he shares the screen.  He also makes some of the film’s best choices, becoming a hero that no one really appreciates.

“The Florida Project’s” great find is in the aforementioned Bria Vinaite who seems to run the line between Taryn Manning’s work in “Hustle & Flow” and Elisabeth Shue’s hooker with a heart of gold in “Leaving Las Vegas.”  She’s fully committed to her work, finding the humanity in a broken woman, while still relentlessly trying to make her real.  It’s a turn that stands as one of the year’s best breakthrough performances.

There’s a genuine nature to “The Florida Project” that will garner lots of admirers.  If you’re fully prepared for what it has to offer, there’s plenty to dissect.  If not, this can be a lot for a Wednesday afternoon.

“The Florida Project” is currently screening at the New York Film Festival, opens in theaters on Oct. 6 in limited release, and is distributed by A24.

GRADE: (½)

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