Oscars 2018: The Florida Project is the gem that most Academy voters, and audiences, won't see

Anupam Kant Verma

Mar,02 2018 13:48:42 IST

Let’s begin with a confession. I only came around to viewing The Florida Project after watching YouTube essayist Nerdwriter’s latest video on it. The video puts forth a solid case for the film’s nomination in the Best Picture category, where the members of the Academy sadly gave it a pass. Later, I read an anonymous Oscar voter’s article in Indiewire on the rationale (or the lack of it) behind the Academy voters’ choices. The voter mentions nonchalantly that the Academy probably won’t see The Florida Project, which dramatically decreases the chances of Willem Dafoe bagging the statuette for the film’s solitary Oscar nomination.

Throughout the article, the Academy member repeatedly points out the voters’ proclivity towards picking safe, politically correct films. That set me thinking. Why was I, quite like the members of the Academy, guilty of postponing watching this tiny miracle of a film? Is it, as Nerdwriter puts it, simply because it is the Oscars? None of the nominees in the Best Picture category, with the exception of Dunkirk and the masterful Phantom Thread, have lingered with me as long as The Florida Project. Why then did I switch it off midway through the first time I gave it a go? And why was I stunned into surrendering to its immense riches the next time I saw it?

Perhaps the key to this mystery lies in the joyous abandon director Sean Baker invests the film with. He allows his cast to slowly, imperceptibly turn the screws on the viewer. By the time its ending comes around, the audience has been ferried along on a wild, untamed ride that resembles less a film and more a project that shall go on beyond the picture’s runtime, just like the life of its precocious and impossibly adorable protagonist, Moonee.

Moonee and Halley — her young, single mother — stay at Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida (near Orlando). The age-old spectre of Disney World looms nearby. It is the reason behind the majority of the town’s tourist inflow. The film follows Moonee and her young friends, Scooty and Dicky, as they go about the gleeful business of childhood. That, in essence, is all the film is about. A bunch of children, belonging to the margins of American society, lost in their childhood kingdom as everything else grows up around them. As the film progresses, the conflicts and issues that define grown-ups start creeping into the children’s lives, gradually leading to an ending that has divided critics and audiences.

Baker’s decision to lead us into this world through the perspective of Moonee and the other children lends the film its infectious vitality. Everything appears illumined by a bright, all encompassing light. At the centre of this circle of light lies Moonee. She romps around town infecting everyone with her endless reserves of charm and mischief. Brooklynn Prince doesn’t play Moonee as much as she is her. There is no 'becoming' to witness in this performance. In a movie that defies the notion of film with its bravura and profound honesty, Prince steps out of the restrictive arena of performance to simply be Moonee. No wonder the Academy failed to recognise it. In doing so, it might have given Prince the highest possible compliment.

Still from The Florida Project

Still from The Florida Project

A poem should not mean/But be. Thus ends Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica. The vividness and visual primacy that characterises the motion picture makes it the perfect candidate for depicting simply being. And being is fundamentally the motto of childhood. For a majority of the film’s runtime, all we see is the characters walking up and down the motel, trying to make a living, talking about things that constitute the world, sunning themselves — children up to mischief, children being children. The stuff that a normal life is made of.

However, almost unbeknownst to the audience, Baker is showing us the normal that underlies lives all so different from ours. We follow Moonee as she casually picks up bread and other foodstuff from a truck handing out free food as normally as we witness her run after the pot of gold she believes lies at the end of the rainbow. That’s the great genius of The Florida Project. Complete non-intervention. Deep faith in the vitality of its characters. A belief that simply showing people going about their daily lives will engage the audience.

This belief’s deep roots were revealed on reading that the actress who plays Halley was picked by the director over Instagram. Apart from Willem Dafoe, the cast of The Florida Project comprises largely first-time or amateur actors. In my humble opinion, Bria Vinaite has turned in one of the truly dazzling performances of the year. Her Halley holds so steadfastly to the truths of her life that she’s never daunted by them. It’s near magical to witness a debutante actress lend such wide emotional range to a volcanic physical performance. The result is rapturous.

I’ve consciously avoided mentioning any of the scores of great scenes that light up this film. For a mere mention of these scenes will strip away a chunk of the wonder that makes it feel so alive. The Florida Project, like all truly great films, is pure experience. And it has to be seen and absorbed and lived; by Academy members and men, women and children all over the world.

I remember being amused while watching the Nerdwriter video, for I could detect a note of indignance and anger at the Oscars for failing to put the film into the spotlight. As I near the end of this article, a backwards glance at this piece suffices to render me guilty of the same passive aggressive behaviour.

I’m drawn back to the scene where Halley and Moonee take Jancey out to celebrate her birthday. They simply sit down on a patch of grass, pull out some packets of food and crane their necks towards the sky, screaming and laughing as the night is lit up by a surge of fireworks. The moment — notwithstanding the ownership of the fireworks — belongs only to them, while the film appears to belong to us. And when a piece seemingly torn right out of our childhood fails to receive the widespread recognition it deserves, we find ourselves furiously swiveling on our feet like Moonee and shouting, “Give us a break, lady!”

Updated Date: Mar 02, 2018 13:48 PM