Susan Granger’s review of “The Florida Project” (A24)
Making its debut at the New York Film Festival, Sean Baker confounds with this incomprehensibly exuberant celebration of an insolent, six year-old delinquent and her irresponsibly volatile mother.
Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince) and 22 year-old, heavily tattooed Halley (Bria Vinaite) live at Orlando’s Magic Castle, a garish, $35-a-night motel, situated on a highway just outside tantalizing Disney World.
Day-after-day, irrepressible Moonee hangs out with two friends, her neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother at the nearby Futureland Inn. Unsupervised, they spend most of their time making mischief, cadging free meals and begging for money to buy ice cream.
One day, when Moonee, Scooty and Jancey are exploring some deserted condos, they set them on fire. After questioning her son about the vandalism, Scooty’s decent, hard-working mother (Mela Murder) discovers the truth, forbidding him to hang out with Moonee anymore and severing her friendship with increasingly shrill, surly Halley.
Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the calm, compassionate motel manager, is a pivotal presence, maintaining his equilibrium even when the unruly kids try his patience. There’s a memorable scene in which he protectively dispatches a creepy pervert who is hanging around the picnic tables.
Best known for making “Tangerine” (2015) on his iPhone, director Sean Baker is obviously fascinated with exploiting the bleak, anti-social underbelly of economic inequality around The Magic Kingdom. Writing with Chris Bergoch, Baker delineates the tawdry transients’ precarious, often profane lifestyle.
But Halley’s narrative arc makes no sense whatever. While she ostensibly lost her job as a stripper because she refused to provide customers with backroom ‘extras,’ she shows no hesitation turning tricks in the motel, sequestering Moonee behind the shower curtain in a bathtub filled with toys.
Discovered on Instagram, Bria Vinaite’s acting lacks depth and range, reducing her abrasive Halley to increasingly trashy, self-conscious vulgarity, diluting much of the poignancy in Moonee’s story.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Florida Project” is a shrill, sleazy 6, perhaps the most depressing film of the year.