The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Florida Project

Director Sean Baker broke through with the shot-on-iPhone Tangerine, which was an indie sensation in 2015. His follow-up, The Florida Project, further solidifies him as one of the most exciting voices in independent cinema today. This is the latest in a series of movies, which also includes last year's American Honey, that are fiction, yet almost play as documentaries. There's an abundance of authenticity up on the screen, which ensures that you don't know what's coming until it happens, and you don't know how hard it'll hit you until it already has.

There's no plot to speak of. The movie is a slice-of-life drama that takes place in a tacky section of Florida that, ironically, is right in the shadow of Disney World. You won't find any cuddly characters or worlds of enchantment – just discount stores and abandoned tract houses. There is, however, a Magic Castle. It's a rundown purple motel where the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), watches over the economically-disadvantaged and homeless people who live there. He's tough but compassionate.

One of his tenants gives him consistent problems. Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a heavily-tattooed single mother who scrapes together money through a variety of sketchy means. Her 6-year-old daughter Moonee (played by Brooklynn Prince, in one of the most astonishing child performances you will ever see) runs around the motel and its surroundings unsupervised, often causing mischief with her friends.

The Florida Project uses a lot of untrained actors and natural locations, which makes it easy to forget that none of this is real. Baker takes great care to establish the environment, showing the decay that has overtaken it, as well as the despair that has arisen from that decay. The child actors, meanwhile, often seem as though they might be improvising. The unguided interactions between them are totally natural. If you've ever witnessed young kids left to their own devices, with no parental guidance, you will appreciate how genuine it feels.

Despite the lack of a formal plot, there is great meaning in the accumulation of scenes that show what life is like for these people. Bobby averts catastrophe by heading off a pedophile attempting to prey on the motel's children. Halley takes Moonee to a fancy hotel a short walk away, where they sell discounted perfume bottles to the wealthy clientele. Three kids beg a stranger for money to buy an ice cream cone, which they proceed to share. That may not sound exciting on the surface, yet The Florida Project puts all those moments together in a way that builds to a conclusion filled with emotion.

Baker does not judge these folks. He merely observes them. Consequently, we don't judge them either. Even when they – especially Halley – do things we cannot approve of, we empathize with their plight. Getting us to do that is a sign of how observant the film is. There are people just like Halley and Moonee in every community, struggling to stay afloat. We live in a time where it's very easy to look down upon such individuals, to see them as “losers” or drains on the system. The movie challenges us to look deeper. We are rewarded when we do.

Vinaite, a newcomer Baker discovered through Instagram, clearly understands Halley inside and out. She's not afraid to show the woman's flaws, while also suggesting the vulnerabilities beneath them. Dafoe gets a sympathetic role, unlike the intense or villainous ones in which he is usually cast. The actor makes Bobby a straightforward, no-nonsense kind of guy who nonetheless has a protective side. He is outstanding.

Lots of movies can rightfully be called dramatic, or funny, or scary, or whatever. Few legitimately earn the designation “humane.” This is one of them. The Florida Project is a potent exploration of economic hardship, broken dreams, and a way of life where the only true goal is figuring out how to survive today.

( out of four)

The Florida Project is rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.

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