The Florida Project is the media darling of the festival circuit. Praised by critics for its raw, emotional storytelling, and heartfelt message on childhood imagination, it sounds like a good sell–but I knew better to fall for the hype. There are entertaining moments but overall I was not wholly moved by this movie. Sean Baker’s previous movie, Tangerine, is a milestone in LGBTQ film making, The Florida Project is just bland.

The movie follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a Disney Princess in her own right, who lives on a stretch of highway on the other side of paradise (Disney World) at The Magic Castle, an extended stay budget hotel.  Her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is like a ratchet fairy godmother who grants all her wishes by any means necessary. Willem Dafoe is the hotel manager whose stern exterior masks a caring man with a heart of gold. He does his best to look out for all the families who stay there.

NYFF, New York Film Festival, The Florida Project
A24

Moonee is cute and street smart, but she’s no angel. She’s a precocious little hellion who’s downright rude and gets away with causing trouble. Unfortunately, that’s all part of the fantasy. The world is her playground—of course—but outside of that, Moonee is oblivious to the impoverished environment she lives in, and blind to the sacrifices and hazards her mother endures to make sure she’s cared for.

As Halley continues to put herself and her child in harms way, I found it odd of the film to ask its audience to sympathize with this. As a mother, she is loving but neglectful — and an asshole. She fights, she steals, and gets away with everything. She sleeps with other men in close vicinity of her child. What’s endearing about that? There is nothing wrong with sex work to provide for one’s family but I surmise a parent would do their best to keep their child from danger.

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NYFF, New York Film Festival, The Florida Project
A24

I also questioned the authenticity of the dialogue and setting. Is Baker writing about something he knows? Or is this a distorted view of other people’s reality? I know many critics enjoyed this film, as many were able find the beauty in the struggle. Maybe I am missing the connection? I should be able to relate to The Florida Project on a deep level. I grew up in poverty, in a broken home, but something about this story rings false.

Despite my negative commentary, I want to give props to Sean Baker. He has mastered the art of guerrilla style filmmaking, and has learned how to make something from nothing. He takes interest in the underdog and wants to see them succeed. However, Baker needs mentorship. It’s difficult to appreciate his movies because they feel like documentaries masquerading as feature fiction. Even if that’s unintentional, it’s boring and something I don’t enjoy watching for 120-minutes.

It took me some time to figure out where I stood with The Florida Project. After taking way too much time to think it over, the execution of the movie isn’t my ministry. Films like Patterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch), for example, are similar in the way events unfold, but it’s also well shot, the message is clear, the dialogue is engaging, and the characters are well written. Sean Baker has a lot of potential but I believe he needs a bit more training and experience before truly coming into his own.