The Florida Project, the latest anti-movie from the unfairly-lauded indie director Sean Baker, finds Willem Dafoe as the manager of an unwieldy, purple motel, populated by the economically disadvantaged. (You know, the sorts of people who have to pay weekly to live at a run-down purple motel.) One of these degenerate lowlifes is Halley, a trashy woman who begs, steals, and prostitutes herself. It may shock you to learn that Halley’s young daughter, Moonee, spends most of her day unsupervised, and so runs around spitting on cars, playing in abandoned buildings, and pestering Willem Dafoe.
I did not enjoy watching the people in The Florida Project, but not because of their situation or actions. Sean Baker’s characters don’t seem to have a single morsel of intelligence inside them. They lack self-awareness and self-reflection. Of course, some people do too, so this isn’t the crux of my complaint. Great movies have been made about vacant characters. These characters don’t seem governed by their personalities or circumstances either, or even by the artificial whims of a screenwriter. They seem, to me at least, completely arbitrary, existing entirely outside the realms of human motivation.
For general audiences, not liking the characters may be enough of a reason not to like a movie, but I’ve always pushed back against this idea. I don’t need to like characters as long as they are interesting, do interesting things, or I think that the director uses them to say interesting things about the world. Sean Baker does not meet any of these conditions. This is one of the things that I meant by the term ‘anti-movie’ in my first paragraph, but let me try to explain it better.
We can often see how certain filmmakers have influenced subsequent directors, right? Steven Spielberg clearly influenced JJ Abrams, Stanley Kubrick seems to have made an impact on David Fincher, etc, etc. Who influenced Sean Baker? Judging by Tangerine and The Florida Project, my money is on Instagram and YouTube. I’m not being flip—I think this is actually the best context in which to understand the style of his film. The set-ups vary between the overly-composed, heavily filtered, please-give-me-a-bunch-of-likes selfies on Instagram and the random, haphazard, this-is-just-what-my-camera-happened-to-be-pointing-at fail videos on YouTube.
Combine this with the overall structure of the film—and here I must emphasise that Sean Baker is also the editor of The Florida Project. His work is shapeless. One scene follows another indiscriminately (and interminably); there isn’t even an emotional progression as the movie goes along. The scenes are more or less chronological, I’ll grant you, but their actual order seems random. Willem Dafoe chases a child molester off the property; Moonee and her friends light a pillow on fire in an abandoned house; Halley begs people to buy her awful perfume for an inflated price. I don’t remember what order these events occurred in because they may well have occurred in any order.
And this may highlight my biggest problem with the work: there is no reason for it to go on as long as it does. I got the point after ten minutes. I mean that literally. The first time I glanced at my phone to see how much time had passed, the film had only been playing for ten minutes. I thought, ‘I get it. Moonee is in a bad situation, everyone is doing what they can to survive, and Child Services better intervene quick.’ The Florida Project then goes on, showing us versions of the same damn thing, for 90 more minutes—until its insulting anti-ending. This would try even Tsai Ming-liang’s patience. (And that’s not a dig at Mr Tsai, whose films I actually love.)
I can understand the impulse to give Sean Baker a break. In The Florida Project (and in Tangerine) he aims his camera at supposedly underrepresented people living on the margins of society. But so what? That’s literally all he does: points his camera at them. One of the principle reasons for a work of art to exist is to communicate something—an idea, a theme, a mood. I do not get a sense that Baker has anything to say about his subjects, or has a point-of-view about them at all. The Florida Project is a thing, an object. It is. ‘Representation’ is pointless without context.
But I will concede that Sean Baker has one unmistakable talent: making his actors look awful. Whether a seasoned veteran or amateur, everyone looks lost and embarrassed, almost as though there wasn’t even a director present on set with them. Willem Dafoe has been one of our greatest actors for three decades; here, half the time he looks like he’s unconfidently ad-libbing. In most of the scenes, the child actors don’t act like real children, or even child actors; they speak as though they’re reciting something an adult recently told them to say. There is a scene late in the film where Moonee cries, and I actually laughed at how obvious it was that this poor girl was straining hard for tears.
I take no joy from writing things like this. Please believe that I agonised about this review. I don’t like trashing people or their art. But it’s not for no reason: I watched this movie, had a reaction to it, and I must be honest about my feelings. And honestly, watching The Florida Project was torture. When it wasn’t downright boring, it was abjectly insulting, insufferable, and painful to watch. It is without question the worst time I’ve had at the movies in 2017.