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Sean Baker's captivating and heartbreaking The Florida Project ended up being my favorite film from this year's Toronto International Film Festival. But that wasn't always the case. While watching Baker's meandering, unflinching, loosely paced yet gripping story unfold, my own emotions pivoted from "This is fascinating" to "Wait, what are we watching?" to "Oh God, my heart is breaking!" to "This might have jumped the rails" to "This is a masterful work of beautiful originality." So yeah, The Florida Project is going to be a conversation starter, right down to its controversial and powerful final scene (which I'm not sure I can properly translate).
What is it about? Sean Baker's The Florida Project follows the denizens of a low-budget Florida motel, that's managed by the compassionate (and enabling) Bobby -- played by Willem Dafoe at his most humane and sublimely arresting. The motel is named Magic Castle, and its one of many Floridian traps leeching off the long shadow cast by Walt Disney and its tourist-friendly attractions. But there's nothing magical about Magic Castle. It's a purgatory, and its residents are all atoning for past sins that have led them to this pastel-colored halfway house in the sun.
Bobby spends a lot of his time putting out "fires" created by his troublesome residents, and many of those fires are caused by young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). For long stretches of The Florida Project, Sean Baker and his handheld camera merely follow Moonee and her friends on small adventures, because he knows that Florida, itself, is an endlessly fascinating backdrop to explore, no matter what the kids are doing. If you've ever spent any time in the Sunshine State -- and OFF the Disney properties, which are their own unique oasis -- you know that Florida resembles no other state, and the perpetual sunshine attracts all manner of offbeat individuals. This helps explain why The Florida Project casts naked cowgirl Sandy Kane to play a topless sunbather at Magic Castle's pool. It'll make sense when you see it.
I'm not used to Sean Baker's unstructured style of storytelling, so it took me a while to adjust to the fact that his character development occurs just by letting his scenes play out at their own pace. There are very few plot-driving beats in this story, but ample scenes that tell us all that we need to know about Bobby, Halley, Moonee and the people in their orbit at Magic Castle. So when the proverbial shoe finally does drop, we have spent so much time getting to know these unique, broken, upsetting and sensitive characters, we suddenly realize how caught up in their predicament we are. Magic Castle isn't a place you really want to find yourself, because if you are there, life dealt you a shitty hand somewhere along the way. But Sean Baker and his cast make it such a compelling locale, I wasn't ready to leave when the picture reached its abrupt end.
You might not warm to The Florida Project. This isn't a big crowd-pleaser, designed to send you out of the theater with a huge smile feeling positive about the world. But Sean Baker and his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch use imaginative colors to fill in the original characteristics of their mesmerizing characters, and Baker coaxes such natural and beautiful performances that I was completely swept up and blown away by this slowly-unfurling story. The Florida Project is eye-opening, unconventional, sweet, scary, odd and heartbreaking. It's a fantastic movie, one I haven't stopped thinking about since I saw it, and one I guarantee you won't soon forget. It's the best movie I saw in Toronto this year.