Toronto: 'The Florida Project' Could Return Willem Dafoe to Oscars

The Florida Project -still 1-Publicity- H 2017
Marc Schmidt

Sean Baker's The Florida Project, an indie about life in a cheap motel near Disney World, had its North American premiere on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, having previously screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Directors' Fortnight section. The A24 picture, which will hit theaters Oct. 6, instantly shot to the top of my list of favorite films of the year, and I would guess that it has a strong shot at both Toronto's audience award and a best picture nomination.

Baker, best known as the director of 2015's Tangerine, a critically acclaimed film about transgender people that was shot completely on an iPhone 5S, has topped himself by creating a living and breathing world with The Florida Project, which derives its name from the original designation for Disney World. The pic features some of the greatest performances by child performers that you will ever see, especially by 6-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as Moonee, a little girl who is spending the summer with her poor and hustling mother (Bria Vinaite) and other little kids whose parents are crashing in the same motel. The motel is managed by a tough but good-hearted man named Bobby — a never-better Willem Dafoe — who is sort of the Mr. Wilson to their Dennis — or Denice — the Menaces. (He particularly shines in a scene in which he defends the children from a potential threat.)

The Florida Project is engaging from start to finish, while subtly exploring problems of class, education and what keeps many from getting ahead in 21st century America. It also features some of the most beautiful scenes in recent memory, from ones in which the kids run wild to one involving fireworks to the last sequence in the movie. I expect this film to be a major presence at the indie awards ceremonies — the Gotham Awards, the Spirit Awards, etc. — but also that, with the backing of A24, it could strongly contend for Oscar nominations for best picture, director, original screenplay and supporting actor for Dafoe, a respected veteran whose only prior nominations came for 1986's Platoon and 2000's Shadow of the Vampire.