The Florida Project doesn't hold back, well other than in its questionable ending, in terms of portraying the state of its impoverished characters. It doesn't ease this by giving them hearts of gold. The mother is a violent crude prostitute, the daughter's favorite hobby is vandalism, and random creeps are a norm in and around the motel. The one breath of fresh air within the entire film is Willem Dafoe as the motel super Bobby. This is interesting as Dafoe usually is cast as duplicitous sorts including in 2017, such as his death loving demon in Death Note, or even as one of the suspects in Murder on the Orient Express. Dafoe even in some of his more sympathetic roles can often be as colder men, so it is a nice change of pace to see Dafoe in this role. Now on the surface though this role might not seem like a whole lot. Dafoe is technically in quite a few scenes but on the whole he doesn't have an excessive amount of lines. Dafoe is usually there in some way or another though, and what Dafoe does here that is so special in finding the exact presence that Bobby brings to this rather dingy place.
Dafoe first appears as he settles a dispute caused by the often unaccompanied kids. I love Dafoe from this very first scene in the way he handles Bobby's method of dealing with the problem. The thing is Dafoe doesn't portray it as some angelic saint in the moment as he brings a realistic demanding quality as he requests the mother sort it out as well as is particularly blunt in his delivery of threatening to kick her out for smoking in their room. What Dafoe though does do is portray this inherent sympathy in Bobby's attitude not as just a guy doing his job, even though he is doing that, but also someone who is doing his best to do the right thing. Dafoe is great at being a downright great guy. I love his scene of dealing with a blackout in the motel where he depicts a genuine frustration of course when it first occurs, but carries so naturally this good nature of Bobby as he fixes the problem, despite the less than positive attitude of everyone else around. Dafoe makes this believable because he shows the effort in the right way. It's not in terms of the "effort" of his performance, nor does it show that Bobby is faking either. Dafoe rather has this way within his reactions where he turns for a moment like he's going to get mad, but smiles instead. It's not a false smile but rather Dafoe realizes the thoughts of the moment as though Bobby always finds his way into a bit of optimism whenever he can.
Dafoe's performance is this balance he finds in his work through his portrayal of a guy who is trying to make the best of his situation at every point. Dafoe is terrific in this because he makes it so convincing in every scene. It is not as though he is without moments of melancholy however Dafoe presents these moments as Bobby seeing the reality around him but not being overwhelmed by it. Dafoe's work is this great portrayal of a man always looking for the bright side of life. In this sense he is always this source of relief whenever he appears onscreen. Dafoe isn't one note in this and it's remarkable how much he can do within his seemingly limited part. Dafoe offers not only that relief but also some natural humor throughout the film. This includes his way of dealing with the kids directly which are all minor gems. Dafoe brings the energy of an adult who wants the kids to enjoy their childhood, though too much, and bringing the right sense of fun every time he speaks to them. Whether it is directly allowing them to play, such as giving them a hide and go seek spot, or kicking them out of his office for sloppy ice cream eating Dafoe delivers every line with a real warmth. His whole manner towards the kids is as technically proper father should be as there is enough of a stern quality in Dafoe portrayal but always with this sense of a real concern no matter what the interaction may be.
The good nature of the character is never one note or simplistic. One scene that I adore on Dafoe's end is when he insists on counting a tenets money despite her protests against it. Dafoe's great though as he does reveal a sense of frustration in the complaints but even within the frustration is oh so endearing as there is this emphasis on the positive even when there are no positives through Dafoe's approach. Dafoe makes Bobby this mediator in every moment as trying to find the right option in dealing the situations. Two particularly strong scenes for Dafoe are in this way one where he deals with a john where Dafoe manages to have this forcefulness despite always carrying this certain ease as he calmly points out the man and the woman's wrongs separately in turn. The second being when he dispatches a pedophile who has invaded the child filled property. Dafoe again realizes so well this method of Bobby as he gets the man away from the kids through this smoothing things over by so earnestly offering a drink, though Dafoe's eyes always show the real disgust in Bobby, until he's gotten him sufficiently away before lashing out just enough to scare the man off. That's what Dafoe does so effectively throughout which is showing this guy just smoothing everything out best he possibly can given his situation. Dafoe also though is always as this decent man in really an indecent place, and this facet of his work is especially poignant. Dafoe in his moments of just reacting to what's going on around him with Bobby only getting involved when it is right to. Dafoe never wastes a second in any moment, particularly towards the end as Dafoe reveals such a sense of the real pains of the place just through Dafoe's subtle portrayal of Bobby's humanity. He doesn't have a moment exactly in the final scenes yet I found him easily the most resonate aspect of the ending because he makes that sense of concern in the man so honest every moment he is onscreen. Dafoe delivers a great understated performance here as he successfully makes Bobby such a cathartic character. Although he not exactly the focus you get to know his Bobby, and you particularly start to like him a great deal as he stands as this true bright spot within candy colored darkness. Now this review should be over, but I would be remiss if I did not mention his scene of wrangling a few large birds. It's hilarious, we need more scenes of Dafoe talking to birds. That is all.