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The Florida PROJECT

Youthful escape amid grinding poverty

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At Cannes The Florida Project received a standing ovation from audience members. Critics have said it creates a “cinematic playground,” is “authentic and movingly told,” and “packs an emotional wallop like nothing else I’ve seen this year.” Already it has been nominated for a number of awards.

The Florida Project screens a special sneak preview for one night only, Friday, Oct. 27, at Sun-Ray Cinema and includes a Q & A session with producer (and Jacksonville native) Kevin Chinoy. A graduate of Jacksonville’s Episcopal High School and the Wharton School of business, two of the producer’s most recent ventures include movies with writer/director Sean Baker.

Baker, whose works have been praised by Variety as: “raw, real, revolutionary,” is the co-writer (with Chris Bergoch) and director of Florida.

Once upon a time, “The Florida Project” was the working/planning phase name of Disney World. As the film focuses on the families living in the weekly stay motels of Kissimmee—abutting Disney World—that title encapsulates and pays homage to a shadow world influenced by vacation fantasy vibes, but that teeters on tragedy. “I’ve always been drawn to the underground economy. Especially now, in the U.S., in 2017, what people have to resort to,” said Baker.

Florida must have seemed like an obvious choice: the state has a low-wage service economy dependent on tourism and constant expansion. This creates a large underclass that populates Kissimmee’s motels. Yet the movie is elevating and funny. Baker channels the work of The Little Rascals in Our Gang, which was produced during the Great Depression “The focus was the joyous nature of children,” he explained.

Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is the Spanky of this band of merry pranksters. She cusses, spits and tells people off as well as any boy—including her sidekick Scooty (Christopher Rivera). In her world a trip to a central Florida cow pasture becomes a safari, scattered couch stuffing in an abandoned apartment becomes “ghost poo” and strangers on the receiving end of a prank become fast friends. Moonee lives with her young mother Halley, played by first time actor and Instagram discovery Bria Vinaite. Together the two make their own reality and live by their own rules. But they are still in the real world and there are painful consequences to living a Waffle House subsidized life. 

Folio Weekly caught up with Kevin Chinoy for a chat. What follows has been edited for space and clarity.
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How did you come to work with Sean Baker?
When my little brother, Spencer, went to NYU film school he and Sean were roommates. So I’ve known him since he was 19. He and Spencer originally put the comedy television program Greg the Bunny on the public access channel in New York City.  

How does a humble kid from Jacksonville become a big time movie producer?
Well, I don’t know about “big time.” My uncle was in the business as a producer and he was very creative. Both of my younger brothers went to NYU film school. I was on a business track but I was influenced by my uncle and my brothers. I helped Spencer and Sean take Greg the Bunny from local public access to Fox where it played nationally.

Were you guys concerned about hiring Bria Vinaite as she had never acted or taken lessons? Did you had to balance that with the authenticity she bought to the movie?
Sean is so committed to authenticity. He spent a lot of time over a year and a half staying in these weekly stay motels around Orlando to better understand this area and the people who live there. For Halley we needed someone young, as funny as Amy Schumer and with the looks of Angelina Jolie. We saw Instagram videos of Bria and they really made us laugh.

There is some Oscar buzz around the movie, especially Willem Dafoe’s performance, is that something you can talk about?
The first awards of the season, The Gotham Awards, came out today (Oct. 19) and the movie was nominated for Best Feature. Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Actor, and Brooklynn Prince was nominated for Breakthrough Actor. We’re excited.

Is this movie political?
I keep telling Sean he’s like a sociologist. He finds these unique areas and learns all about them. In Tangerine he wanted to write about how people live [on the margins in Hollywood, California] and how they make a living. He did the same thing here and liked the juxtaposition of this place, which was very economically depressed, but just outside of Disney World.

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