The Florida Project movie review: America’s answer to Slumdog Millionaire is a diamond in the rough

Updated on Apr 06, 2018 09:31 AM IST
The Florida Project movie review: Sean Baker’s masterpiece was ignored by the Oscars, but it’s a a haunting, achingly beautiful film, featuring a career-best Willem Dafoe performance.
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project.
Hindustan Times | ByRohan Naahar, New Delhi

The Florida Project
Director - Sean Baker
Cast - Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite
Rating - 4.5/5

Of all the recent Oscars injustices - from Christopher Nolan not getting a Best Director nomination for Inception to Sylvester Stallone not winning Best Supporting Actor for Creed - perhaps the most low-key, yet just as infuriating, has to be the complete shutting out of The Florida Project from this year’s ceremony.

Now that we’ve had a few weeks’ room to breathe - the film has been given a token release in India - I can say without any fear of retaliation or ridicule that The Shape of Water - an excellent film - would not have been my choice for Best Picture. But then again, neither would I have chosen The King’s Speech, The Artist, Birdman, Spotlight or Moonlight - and these are just the winners from the last decade.

By now, enough Oscars have come and gone for us to understand that, for a film to be declared the Best Picture, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad it is. It doesn’t matter if it has broken technological barriers (Gravity), or social ones (Get Out). It doesn’t matter if it has managed to remind us, if only for a moment, the joys of making a pilgrimage to the movie theatre (La La Land) and it doesn’t matter if it will be remembered for decades to come (The Social Network). The only thing that matters is how effective studios have been in mounting their Oscar campaigns. Sure, it helps if the film being supported also happens to be good - which in The Shape of Water’s case, it was - but really, it’s all just so arbitrary, and so depressingly political.

Willem Dafoe in a still from The Florida Project.
Willem Dafoe in a still from The Florida Project.

It’s bittersweet to imagine an alternate scenario, a world in which things played out differently for The Florida Project. It’s a world in which Sean Baker’s new film continued its sensational momentum after its Cannes premiere and scored half a dozen Oscar nominations when the time came. It managed to build steady word of mouth, and over the course of a couple of months, did Slumdog Millionaire business at the box office. On the big night, not only did Willem Dafoe win for Best Supporting Actor - as he should have - but the film won a fistful of other awards, and maybe even the big one.

None of that happened. The Florida Project ended its theatrical run with a mere $10 million and scored just the one nomination, for Dafoe. But this is the sort of movie that will age gracefully, it will be discovered by unsuspecting and adventurous audiences, unaffected and unblemished by a million opinions, and in the end, it will be seen for what it is - a haunting, achingly beautiful story about people who live on the fringes of society, the sort of people whose stories would normally go untold.

The Florida Project is shot on 35mm film. Director Sean Baker made his last movie using only iPhones.
The Florida Project is shot on 35mm film. Director Sean Baker made his last movie using only iPhones.

There’s a reason I invoked Slumdog Millionaire earlier. It’s easy for us, as Indians, to watch that film and have a knee-jerk reaction to it. Why is it that every time the developed world looks at us, all it sees is crippling poverty and injustice? This happened again, in 2016, with another Dev Patel movie, Lion.

Besides the fact that both these films are virtually documentaries as far as honestly depicting modern India is concerned, they’re also about celebrating the unshakable spirit of our people - something that we, blinded as we are by our outrage over being called poor, were too preoccupied to notice. As anyone who has ever been to Mumbai would confirm, the rich and the poor co-exist, perhaps uncomfortably so for the many millionaires who occupy penthouses in their glistening ivory towers, with fields of slums at the bottom. This geographical arrangement was imagined as a rather unsubtle metaphor in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which in turn was inspired by a rather Dickensian conceptualisation of Gotham City, but in our country it’s real.

The Florida Project is about the innocence of childhood.
The Florida Project is about the innocence of childhood.

Dickensian is perhaps the best word with which to describe The Florida Project, a film that looks at the cruelties of the adult world through the innocent eyes of a child - three children, in fact, who live with their broken families in the transient communities that occupy homes in Florida motels. We don’t often see these people in movies, especially in American movies. We see them in the background, hustling, hawking, stealing, serving, providing - as we do in real life.

It reminded me of the films of Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows, both truth tellers of British cinema, unflinching in their honesty about the condition of the oppressed.

As we follow these children on their daily adventures - there is no time for school, only the exploration of the abandoned land around this economically affected side of America - we notice that they, too, have the resilience we thought that we, as Indians, had reserved for ourselves. Baker, who continues to push the boundaries of indie moviemaking - his last film, Tangerine, featured two trans women in the lead roles, and was shot with iPhones - achieves this by framing his story, both literally and thematically, through the perspective of these kids.

This one frame encapsulates everything about The Florida Project.
This one frame encapsulates everything about The Florida Project.

His 35 mm camera juxtaposes the harsh realities of this kind of existence - drug-filled, crime ridden, hopeless - with the fantasy of Disneyland, often described as the Happiest Place on Earth, which, like those Mumbai skyscrapers, is always within sight of the overpopulated motels, but never attainable. Baker’s camera hovers along with the kids, gazing up at the adults, distracting itself when their world gets too difficult to bear - just like the bright, pastel visuals (attempt to) distract us, and the occupants of this world, from their lives. It’s sort of like how Steve McQueen photographed the stunning natural beauty of the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave.

And no one represents this generosity, this decency, this brief but resonant hope, better than Willem Dafoe’s motel manager, Bobby. In a film that feels almost like a fantasy at times, he is the wizard. He is the only symbol (and reminder) of human decency in a tragic, unforgiving world overrun by vice and decrepitude. It’s the performance of a lifetime.

Watch the Florida Project trailer here

Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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