Slim Storytelling Sinks "The Florida Project"

Even for a film that kicks off with two of the most exasperating sounds in the world – screaming children and Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” – “The Florida Project” works up a remarkably thick sweat of misery.

Writer-director Sean Baker broke through with 2015 drama “Tangerine,” highly touted for being shot in its entirety with three iPhones, but most notable in that it centered on two transgender sex workers. The film’s sparse narrative and unlikable characters were made mostly immaterial by a fierce commitment to a world rarely seen on film. It was more important that the movie existed – more important that it impacted – than if it was any good.

“The Florida Project” is unmistakably from the same filmmaker. Baker is a master of making real life look evocative without sapping it of its grime, a trick he once again lands smoothly in his tale of impoverished children living just miles from Walt Disney World in Central Florida. Better yet, the pic’s uniquely colorful look comes with a rare warmhearted performance from the great Willem Dafoe.

The veteran actor pulls supporting actor duty as Bobby, the frustrated manager of an extended stay motel and something of a guardian angel to 6-year-old tenant Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her wild child mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Dafoe’s sturdy presence is nearly reason enough to check in to the film, his character’s watchful eye never straying from his overwhelmingly purple motel, the Magic Castle – and, most importantly, its children.

But after a reasonably engaging first act, the movie’s raison d’etre comes into focus. It intends to wear us down. Apart from Moonee’s ongoing medley of childlike shenanigans, all mother and daughter do is struggle, with Baker continually confusing despair for drama. The final product amounts to a hangout movie with characters you might very well not want to hang out with, where the only choice is emotional submission.

This world, or at least a version of it, exists in real life, but shading is left unconsidered by Baker. He wrings his characters’ grim little corner of America for all the pain that it’s worth, small incidences of joy be damned. The omnipresence of Orlando’s tourism industry and parade of smiley gift shop facades make for striking visual juxtaposition but add very little to the story, a fraudulence that unwittingly underlines the relative shortcomings of the lead actors.

The greenness of the cast outside of Dafoe and a few supporting players (Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair) is a considerable liability, not lending itself to Baker’s vérité style in the way that the cast of “Tangerine” did. Vinaite’s performance in particular lacks depth, ascribed to both a willfully thin screenplay and a dearth of acting experience that results in a lead far more unlikable than intended. Brooklynn Prince and her kid co-stars (Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto) are more convincing but none of them revelatory, owed to swaths of scenes that are cute but serve no larger purpose.

Even bigger than the issue of one-note unpleasantness and a 115-minute running time that feels twice as long is that in immediate wake of “American Honey” and Oscar-winner “Moonlight,” the movie is dealing in a currency far less than mint. Baker’s “lost youth drowning in oversaturated colors” bent pales in comparison to that of those 2016 films, the writer-director once again calling on viewers to appreciate the material for what it’s about over how it’s about it. But the material just isn’t as compelling as that of “Tangerine.”

There’s beauty to be found within “The Florida Project,” even as it’s swallowed up by a style-over-substance approach increasingly at odds with its subject matter. Baker’s gifts remain both evident and only half-realized. Dafoe fans are encouraged to pay a visit, but be warned: the rest of the film just might come off like one long chalkboard scrape.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: October 6, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Sean Baker
Screenwriters: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material)