Review: ‘The Florida Project’ is good, depending on definition

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 11/14/17 12:00am

A few weeks ago, my editors acquiesced to my request to drop the numerical ratings system in my reviews. I felt the ratings were becoming increasingly arbitrary. Not just arbitrary in the sense that one number is a rather weightless way of expressing an opinion, but also in the sense that the distinction between “good” and “bad” cinema was becoming more and more blurry to me. Thanks to some of my film studies courses, I began to appreciate how limiting these categories were. Of course, I wouldn’t write film criticism week after week if I didn’t feel that discussing the quality of films had some value. I’ve come to realize that the way I define “quality” is somewhat complicated.

In short, “The Florida Project” feels like an all-too-fitting end to this term’s line-up of reviews because it’s the sort of thing I might have refused to discuss had the ratings system been intact. I would have been too fearful, too uncertain. If I had foolishly tried to write a review with a rating, it would have been a colossal mistake.

About halfway through watching “The Florida Project,” I thought to myself, “I think this might be this year’s ‘Manchester by the Sea.’” Last year while everyone was heaping praise on “Manchester by the Sea,” I discovered that I was one of the few dissenting voices. I felt alienated from the film and said as much in my review. Likewise, while watching “The Florida Project” I frequently had a feeling of discomfort that I couldn’t quite pin down. But, thankfully, I remembered “Manchester by the Sea”; I remembered how much I had regretted not giving it a second chance. I do not think I would have enjoyed it any more on another viewing, but I think I might have appreciated it more. I understand now that if a film can get under my skin like that, it’s worth thinking about a little more deeply before coming to a final opinion.

In “The Florida Project,” cocky 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in Kissimmee, Florida just outside of Disney World. Although the land of Mickey Mouse looms large in the background of her life, one always senses that Moonee is not quite welcome in that realm. Instead, she lives in poverty with her mother, Halley (Brie Vinaite). Together they live in the rundown Magic Castle Motel, a mockery of the ostentatious and oblivious display of wealth that perpetually lurks right around the corner. Moonee seems unaware of her less than ideal circumstances; she spends the entire day running around the neighborhood with her friends, transforming it into their own personal playground. More than once Moonee manages to irk Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the gruff but ultimately well-intentioned motel manager.

Until approximately the last 20 minutes, the film lacks anything that even resembles a plot. It is a series of vignettes that, in the manner of a dripping faucet, slowly feeds the audience knowledge about these characters and their circumstances. Co-writer and director Sean Baker has opted for a decidedly realistic filming style which practically veers into documentary territory. This technique provides him, and us, with the necessary tools not to judge these characters but, instead, to empathize with them.

On a conceptual level, this all sounds fantastic. So why didn’t I instantly fall in love with “The Florida Project?” Part of it has to do with my own personal hang-ups. I’m the first to admit that I’m not especially fond of small children and thus was not keen to spend two hours with one. Then again, that probably speaks to how realistically Baker captures childhood. Moonee and her friends are not well-behaved little child actors — they act in the rambunctious manner of real children.

My bigger concern was ultimately the way Baker approached the film’s more touchy, topical issues. The film has quite possible the least resolute ending I’ve seen all year. As a result, these issues tend to hang like storm clouds over the story — omnipresent but eerily still. To some extent, though, I can understand why Baker has opted for this approach. It would be disingenuous to make a film which pretends to have all of the answers to these problems. Nonetheless, I would have appreciated a little more commentary and a little more context. In particular, I wish we had learned more about the Halley character who so often feels relegated to a negligent mother stereotype.

On a technical level, though, the film is certainly well-made. Baker makes the most out of a small budget, often utilizing unusual camerawork for the sake of efficiency. The result is both unique and impressive. Earlier this year I praised McKenna Grace from “Gifted” for her skill as a child actor, but Prince blows her out of the water. Moonee can be annoying, yes, but when Baker wants you to feel, Prince delivers. Dafoe is also superb. He’s one of the more underrated actors working today and I’d be happy if this film netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod.

So, all of this rambling brings us to the question that film reviews are ostensibly supposed to answer: Was the film good? I’m going to do the one thing I am not supposed to do as a reviewer and tell you that I am not quite sure. I did not really enjoy watching it, but it has also given me plenty to think about. I guess it all depends on your definition of “good.” Personally, I like the one that film and media studies professor Paul Young once provided: a good film is a film that looks back at you, that is complex and that knows things about itself that you don’t yet know but would very much like to find out. If that’s how you define “good” then yes — “The Florida Project” is very good.