As the Leeds International Film Festival continues, so do the selection of brilliant films. The Florida Project is the latest from Tangerine director Sean Baker and stars Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince. The film follows the exploits of Moonee (Prince), a precocious child who gets into scrapes at a run-down motel over the summer holiday, and who is oblivious to the troubles that her mother, Halley is experiencing.
The Florida Project bears comparison with one of last year’s finest films American Honey. Both films are an unflinching look at poverty in post-economic crisis America; both look at the crisis through the eyes of young people; and both share a fairy tale edge. However, The Florida Project differentiates itself in a number of ways including its style of cinematography and it’s more fizzy, upbeat style.
The gorgeous 35mm cinematography captures the pastel coloured worlds of Moonee and her friends. Some of the tableaus that Baker and his cinematographer Alexis Zabe create are jaw droppingly vast and beautiful; this expansive cinematography being mixed with claustrophobic close-ups. This treatment is very effective for the most part, but the lack of focus in some shots can get a little frustrating as Baker’s desire for realism and spontaneity doesn’t always yield the most engaging shots.
The performances across the board are excellent. The child actors, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera are brilliant, their naturalism and charisma shining through. Bria Vinaite is a firecracker as Halley, who feels like one of the magazine crew from American Honey who has moved on. Her actions drive the plot along and she is one to watch.
However, the real star of the film is Willem Dafoe. His portrayal of Bobby, the manager of the motel is a joy to watch. Dafoe is not the first person that most people would think of when they think of gruff, decent, paternal figures. However, Dafoe pulls this role off brilliantly, giving Bobby real heart and soul whilst also quietly stealing the film. He has the lion’s share of the best lines and I would not be surprised if Award nominations came his way. He also has the two best scenes in the film, one involving a suspect individual and a can of soda and the second including a joyously comic encounter with some flightless birds.
Similarly to American Honey, the film has an ambling, seemingly aimless plot which serves it extremely well. However, its major failing is its ending. For a film that sticks to its guns tonally and thematically, it is disappointing that it lets itself down in the last few minutes.
Overall, The Florida Project is a brilliant exploration of poverty and human decency that is let down by its weak ending. However, Willem Dafoe’s sterling performance and some gorgeous cinematography more than make up for this. Stick with The Yorker for more coverage of the Leeds International Film Festival including Happy End, Glory and Dark River.
The Florida Project is screening as part of LIFF 31. For tickets please visit LeedsFilmCity.com. Image source: wbur.org