The Flor­ida Project

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST MOVIES - Chris Knight

Can you l ove t he movie and hate the c har­ac­ters? The Fl ori da Pro­jec t , writer/di­rec­tor Sean Baker’s fol­lowup to his 2015 crit­i­cal hit Tan­ger­ine, is an au­da­cious and con­trolled piece of film­mak­ing, but its cast mem­bers op­er­ate at such a con­sis­tently shrill pitch that the whole en­ter­prise be­comes tir­ing, even an­noy­ing. You might en­joy a movie about a guy who op­er­ates a jack­ham­mer, but not if he spent the en­tirety of the film on the job.

The best/ worst t hing about The Flor­ida Project is six- year- old Moonee, played by Brook­lynn Prince. She lives in a down- mar­ket Or­lando ho­tel called Magic Cas­tle, painted a dis­turb­ing mauve I can only call Magic Pur­ple. The ring­leader of a trio of pint- sized hel­lions, Moonee swears, steals, twerks, lights fires, im­pre­cates the tourists, spits on cars and Never. Shuts. Up. She’s like a birth­day party at­tendee, if the en­ter­tain­ment was Satan, the venue a prison riot, and the party favour a line of co­caine.

Close sec­ond in the amaz­ing/an­noy­ing cat­e­gory is Bria Vi­naite as Hal­ley, Moonee’s wild-child mom. Hal­ley tries to make ends meet through a com­bi­na­tion of black-mar­ket sales, beg­ging and pros­ti­tu­tion. It’s in­struc­tive that when a man com­plains of be­ing robbed by some­one from the ho­tel, the man­ager’s first re­sponse is: “The six- yearold?” The vic­tim looks taken aback: “No, man, the mom.”

Bobby the man­ager is played by Willem Dafoe, and he is the near­est thing the film has to a calm cen­tre, as he tries ( mostly in vain) to keep the Magic Cas­tle op­er­at­ing smoothly. The scene where he gen­tly shoos away a trio of cranes from the drive­way is pure cin­e­matic poetry; this while Hal­ley is crash­ing a nearby, fancier ho­tel to plun­der its break­fast buf­fet, while Moonee snorfs down berries and muses: “I wish they made forks out of candy.”

I get it; we’re meant to feel for th­ese im­pov­er­ished fringe-dwellers, liv­ing in the shadow of Walt Dis­ney’s mas­sive theme park (which he called “the Flor­ida project” in plan­ning) but un­able to af­ford any of its magic. The clos­est they get is the oc­ca­sional view of the nightly fire- works, and the near-con­stant drone of he­li­copters fer­ry­ing wealthy tourists, at whom Hal­ley and Moonee of­ten flip a mid­dle fin­ger.

But sym­pa­thy can melt like ice cream in the Florid­ian sun when there’s so lit­tle con­text to be had. What­ever mis­takes or mis­for­tunes have landed Hal­ley in this land­scape re­main frus­trat­ingly un­ex­plored; there’s no sign of Moonee’s dad, and her mom’s re­mark that “I can’t get ar­rested again” is the near­est the film comes to posit­ing a back story.

We’re left with oo­dles of at­mos­phere, as the south­ern sun shim­mers on the screen, punc­tu­ated by oc­ca­sional in­tense, trop­i­cal storm bursts. And Baker has a won­der­ful way of fram­ing the many tacky tourist temp­ta­tions that dot the ter­rain, ad­ver­tis­ing or­anges, Dis­ney sou­venirs and the chance to fire a real ma­chine gun. But for all that kitschy beauty, I wouldn’t want to spend one more minute with Moonee, here or any­where else. ∂∂½


Willem Dafoe and Brook­lynn Prince in a scene from The Florida Pro­ject.

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