by Alistair Ryder
Despite receiving widespread attention for his 2015 film Tangerine, which generated countless headlines due to being filmed entirely on an iPhone, director Sean Baker had already spent close to two decades making low budget features documenting those on the margins of society. Before his stylistically adventurous breakthrough film, documenting the lead up to Christmas in the lives of transgender sex workers, he had already made films following characters ranging from Chinese immigrants under criminal debt (2004’s Take Out) to street workers earning a living selling off-brand products (2008’s Prince of Broadway). Tangerine may have felt like it emerged from nowhere, a fully formed and revolutionary cinematic work in terms of both style and content, yet the director had already spent the best part of 15 years perfecting his low-budget, docudrama style, that effortlessly mixes poignance with hilarity and social commentary.
The Florida Project; dir: Sean Baker; USA 2017, 115 mins. Our rating: ★★/5
His latest film, The Florida Project, is his most accessible to date- and unfortunately, also his least interesting by some distance. Documenting the lives of a mother and daughter resigned to living in a long stay motel, he focuses on character archetypes that have largely been covered in both narrative and documentary cinema prior to this film, with no subversion of pre-conceived stereotypes you may associate with people on the desperate end of the socio-economic ladder. The plethora of critical plaudits the film has received makes me a rare outlier, but The Florida Project left me with no novel insight in to the lives of people in desperate living situations, nor did it leave me as impressed by the contrast of the upbeat tone and the theoretically depressing storyline as the director’s previous effort.
The Florida Project follows Moonee (newcomer Brooklyn Prince), a six year old girl living in a long stay motel with her perennially out of work mother (Bria Vinaite). While she is constantly causing mischief in the local area with her friends, her mother struggles to pay the weekly rent- something which increasingly wears down the kindly manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). From here, the film documents their economic desperation over the course of the summer school holidays.
One of the difficulties in adjusting to the film’s tone this time around is how hard Baker pushes the audience to accept that his characters are empathetic, even as we’re presented with repeated evidence to the contrary. Bria Vinaite’s performance as Halley doesn’t generate any empathy, due to her repeated abhorrent behaviour, which constantly overshadows the basic fact that she’s trying to make money solely to raise her child- the overblown, antagonistic nature of the performance seems to detract from any shred of empathy that may have existed in the character as written in the screenplay.
Contrasted with a character with a highly similar arc from a recent film, such as Katie, the poverty-stricken single mother played by Hayley Squires in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, and the flaws in characterisation become all the more apparent. One is likeable, forced in to doing horrible things for the love of her kids- while the other has a near identical arc, but with a bullying attitude to everybody in her orbit (aside from her daughter) that makes her struggle hard to empathise with.
Baker has a proven talent for carefully entwining hard hitting realism with more heightened, fantastical elements. Despite being seen through the eyes of the young lead character, Baker’s approach in The Florida Project in this regard is flawed. Some of the toughest scenes are never depicted, in a manner that maintains the childlike innocence by showing Moonee doing playful activities elsewhere, yet other sequences take place entirely outside of the young character’s perspective altogether, robbing this concept of any narrative coherency.
It’s unclear whether the focus is supposed to be upon the community as a whole, or upon seeing the grimly realist drama through a fresh, less cynical pair of eyes that sees the community as full of wonder worth exploring.
Like Tangerine, it’s filmed on an iPhone, but without the visual grace of that film; the awkward final sequence attempts to drag the film back in the direction of fantasy, but does so in an embarrassing manner, and the end result feels more likely a poorly shot commercial than a logical narrative conclusion.
Elsewhere, major incidents that should have narrative repercussions (such as the children burning down an abandoned house, or Halley escaping arrest for selling goods without a licence) are treated with a flippant disregard – neither adding depth to the characters, nor painting a more thorough picture of the economic desperation in Trump’s America. As the film progresses, large segments of the running time are devoted to consequence-free bad behaviour, all stemming from characters who the director strives to depict as empathetic- a tricky balancing act that the film was unsuccessful in pulling off.
In fact, it’s highly unusual that the director’s biggest budget effort to date is significantly less visually alluring than the film he made on a smartphone. There are a few magnificent shots intermittently throughout the drama (most notably Moonee and her friend sitting on a tree in the magic hour, as well as Bobby looking over the motel balcony as the lights turn on for the evening), but mostly the style is overwhelmingly garish- tacky Florida landmarks that are filmed with a flat palette that doesn’t help them jump off the screen.
As well intentioned as The Florida Project is, I struggled to be absorbed by the drama in the same manner countless others have been. Unlikeable characters aren’t a barrier stopping me from liking a film- but when portrayed in the favourable light they are here, spending time in their presence proved to be increasingly grating. Coupled with a lack of unique insight in to poverty-stricken life in Donald Trump’s America, and the end result is a warm hearted film that left me feeling cold.