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There were a number of wonderful performances by actors and actresses in film in 2017. Some of my personal nightlights included Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water, Gary Oldman in The Darkest Hour, Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya. If you had to signal out one quality embodied by all the performers, they all had a transformative quality to their work; making one forget other roles that had come before.
Yet, it was the work of an unknown actress, Bria Vinaite, in The Florida Project, who achieved something truly everlasting with her character, Halley.
In a crowded field of best actress contenders, Bria Vinaite deserved to be nominated at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.
For those uninformed about Sean Baker’s film, The Florida Project focuses on a group of unsupervised children who live in the shadow of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. While the Magic Kingdom is seemingly in reach, the modern day version of the Little Rascals instead have to make due with the Magic Castle – a dingy motel whose color evokes the twisted shade of blue/purple that Violet Beauregarde turned in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The film’s pint-size star, Brooklynn Prince, plays Moonee – a six-year-old who is equal parts Darla from Our Gang as she is the scheme driven Bubbles from The Wire. Yes, she’s that good.
The film is clearly Prince’s. Baker solidifies this with a style of filmmaking that relies heavily on the point of the view of the children. Everything is above them. The world is big; grandiose as Disney. But there are no teacups rides or elevated thrills. Rather, it’s the combination of the mundane inside the Magic Castle – like the storage closet or administrative office – which reveals the purity of childhood hijinks.
The carefree reality of life at the Magic Castle is broken when we meet Moonee’s mother, Halley (Vinaite), who is forced to see their situation for what it really is; a day-rate motel that isn’t a step away from Disney, and is instead closer to a life on the street if and when they can’t make the $38 USD a day rent.
Donning a hair color that could only be described as pool chlorine blue/green, a lip piercing, and tattoos, Vinaite herself feels like a slightly more grown up version of who all of the children at the Magic Castle will become when their baby teeth fall out, puberty hits like summer humidity, and poverty hardens a person.
Halley’s look wasn’t a carefully conceived aesthetic that Baker conjured up in the pages of Final Draft. Rather, it was Vinaite’s own oeuvre which initially caught his eye on Instagram.
“There was a video of her jumping around the backyard, which made me laugh,” Baker remembered. “And there were a lot of [clips] where she would talk directly to the camera while smoking a blunt. She didn’t have a care, and didn’t have a filter.”
One perusal of her Instagram – even post The Florida Project success – reveals confessional style humor in clips where she dances with a mop to 2 Chainz and laments “when the weed man is late.”
For Vinaite, Instagram was a playful outlet for her restless mind which would on occasion allow her to hock merchandise for her brand, ChroniCal Designs, which featured a variety of garments emblazoned with weed-themed designs.
When Baker decided to engage her via direct message to tell her about his film, she had no acting experience beyond her playful persona on social media.
“My initial reaction was disbelief,” Vinaite said. “It just seemed too good to be true, and so surreal. I don’t watch a lot of films or TV, so I had not heard of his films. But the day he reached out, I watched all of them the same day.”
Sean Baker had become accustomed to having final cut on all of his films. For the layperson, it means that the financier or distributor can’t make creative demands or force narrative changes. Studios like Warner Bros. have intentionally steered away from working with “auteur directors” who want the privilege.
But since Baker was working with indie fare, his final cut demands were to be met under one condition; he needed a recognizable actress for the role of Halley.
He was initially drawn to the idea of taking someone super recognizable and defying expectations. Alex Saks, who produced The Florida Project, admits that three well-known singers were considered; Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, and Miley Cyrus.
“I thought I could definitely get a performance out of [Spears],” Baker admitted.
Although a transformative effect was what worked so well for many of aforementioned actors like Frances McDormand, Margot Robbie and co., Baker felt that having a famous – and financially well off singer – in the role of a poverty stricken single mother not only felt like a stretch, but also something that was in poor taste.
Baker wanted Bria Vinaite, and he wanted final cut. He had 35 days to shoot the film. There would be kid actors, ambient helicopter noise, and 100 degree heat. It certainly had all the makings of a doomed production.
Yet, producers acquiesced and took a chance on Baker knowing the type of leading lady that would populate his interpretation of Orlando.
“May 8, 2016, my life changed,” Vinaite remembered. “I definitely didn’t think it was real because I don’t think anybody would ever assume something like that would happen through a social platform. It took me a few days to kind of really get that it was real.”
If you do indeed believe in serendipity – like Vinaite does – she thought she was meant to play the role of Moonee’s mother because she had the celestial body tattooed on her left leg. Not every parent gets their child’s name or likeness tattooed on their body, but Halley would.
What Vinaite achieves is nothing short of miraculous. That isn’t to say, “it’s a good performance by a novice,” but rather, one of the most authentic performances of the year and something that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
The idea of placing authenticity above experience is not necessarily a new phenomenon in Hollywood. Filmmakers Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, and Fernando Meirelles have used it to great effect in films like Kids, Gummo. and City of God. Baker himself cast unknowns Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in his previous film, Tangerine.
But for many of the actors and actresses, they couldn’t disappear into the roles – even in they were playing a composite of who they really were.
For as much credit as Baker and Vinaite deserve for bringing Halley’s character to life in The Florida Project, perhaps the biggest entity responsible for the success of their union is actually Instagram. Although we lament social media for turning people into self-serving narcissists, Vinaite’s usage of the platform – before getting that fateful phone call – had prepared her to be comfortable looking down the barrel of a lens.
If filmmaking is a firing squad, Vinaite didn’t just close her eyes and wait for the bullet. She instead asked for a cigarette and looked through the instrument of destruction.
Vinaite’s portrayal of Halley is the anti-selfie. It’s not overly curated using filters so that blemishes disappear, it’s not the happy vacation photo from Disney, and it’s not a chronological feed that “my life is better than yours.” Instead, it’s an honest look inward the bypasses all the superficiality.
In Frances McDormand’s Mildred in 3 Billboards we got a grieving mother who became emblazoned with courage. In Margot Robbie’s Tonya in I, Tonya we got a woman who channeled her upbringing into a competitive drive. And In Sally Hawkins’s Elisa in The Shape of Water we got someone who couldn’t be heard who finally made a connection.
Bria Vinaite’s Halley didn’t transform into mother of the year. Instead, she tried to curate what life was like for her daughter, Moonee.
In an era where people “do it for the ‘gram,” Halley served a more noble purpose; she provided a filter so that Moonee could continue to view the world with childlike whimsy.
For more movie news, check out Michael B. Jordan in the trailer for ‘Fahrenheit 451.’
- Featured/Main Image: A24