Welcome to a magical kingdom.
I almost didn't include The Florida Project as among my Screenflowers for 2017. It has earned an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe as Best Supporting Actor and was the subject of much talk in the Fall of 2017 before many of the Oscar contenders were released. However, I had Sean Baker's gorgeous look at dysfunctional children living in a theme park-adjacent ghetto pegged as a likely surprise Best Picture-winner, but all of the lavish praise it received earlier in the year seems to have dissipated.
I didn't love The Florida Project, partially due to what I felt was a false ending out-of-sync with everything that preceded it, and also my sense that Baker was working at a kind of polemic and in doing so missed the essence of the humanity at the center of his film. Here's the review that I wrote in October directly after watching The Florida Project:
The latest from Sean Baker, who seems to have set his directorial gaze on people who live in a state of perpetual chaos. Although the style is similar to that of Baker's TANGERINE, subject-wise The Florida Project reminded me more of Andrea Arnold's American Honey, to which this could possibly be a kind of prequel: that, perhaps, is the world which these kids will grow up to inhabit. I admire the slice-of-life aspect of Baker's two movies that I've seen, and I found this one easier to latch onto, being a parent who is around kids close to this age. My problem with Baker has been that I haven't been able to sync up with his point-of-view in these movies. He seems to consider himself a humanist filmmaker, but chooses difficult subjects that (intentionally, one assumes) present problems for that approach. These aren't characters with whom you want to spend much time, as their most mundane hours wallow in what seems like a constant state of unnecessary belligerence. In the case of The Florida Project, you still want to empathize with these children, some of whom have been essentially abandoned by incompetent parents, but it's difficult to see how they will be any better as adults after growing up in this environment. As a canvas on which to project one's own thoughts, The Florida Project is stimulating; Baker's own intent seems to be scattered across many different facets, wanting to portray the stubborn innocence that somehow persists between the way we'd like things to be for these kids and the way that they unfortunately are. Sadly, he doubles down on this too hard at the very end, and when the kids suddenly seem to be acting (badly) from a (bad) script rather than improvising, the spontaneous and natural world of the movie crashes, and for what? Baker takes a thematic element that has been lingering meaningfully in the periphery for the entire film and puts it (wholly improbably) front and center with such clumsy sentiment that it feels like a non-sequitur. As much I like the technical aspects of Baker's two most recent movies, he feel to me like a director whose perspective has not yet matured to grapple with his tough subjects, or maybe I just don't understand his perspective yet.
I also had some thought on the one component of The Florida Project that I felt was conspicuously absent:
One thing that was interesting to observe in this movie was the absence of religion in these lives. If the same movie had been made 50-60 years ago, these poor southern people on the margins would have been leading better lives as a result of faith. I say this as a non-religious person, who has the luxury of middle class morality: the absence of any controlling notion of how to live was stark. Look at the documentary Salesman for a wholly different, higher class of poverty than what we see in The Florida Project. The only nod to religion in The Florida Project is a church group that provides some relief to the motel’s residents. It was brief and, if I recall correctly, had no deeper impact on the residents, who just wanted free stuff.
Since then, The Florida Project has loomed in my mind, and as false as I find its final moments, it's a powerful and stunningly captured slice-of-life. I hope to respond more warmly to it the next time I watch it.