The Florida Project is one of my favorite films of the year. From the opening moments, I was floored by its confidence and boundless energy. A vibrant and colorful film both because of the roadside attractions that pepper the landscape and also because of the characters.
Sean Baker is fast becoming one of my favorite working directors. He has an ability to weave a seamless verete narrative peppered with genuine humor and wrapped around a gargantuan beating humanistic heart. He allows us to view the characters in their totality without condemnation.
On the outskirts of Disney World is a land of tourist traps and motels. A community has begun to develop in this stretch of land. People who are on the cusp of being homeless. They are living week to week never sure exactly where next week’s rent is coming from.
I’m not going to lie this is a hard film to watch. Not for any grand cinematic decision but simply because Baker chooses to allow us to view Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) warts and all. When we first meet Moonee, she and her friends are rushing off to another hotel to have a loogie hocking contest on a woman’s car. The car’s owner catches them and chases them back to the giant purple hotel they call home, the Magic Castle.
Moonee and her friends’ panhandle, break things, and run around unsupervised. They possess an innocence, but it is not a cutesy innocence. It’s an innocence that stems from never having been told they can’t do something. Moonee’s mom, Halley, is far too busy getting stoned, partying, and or sending Moonee to the back of Waffle House to get free food from her friend Ashley (Mela Murder).
Baker makes no moral assertions on behalf of his characters. This allows us to judge them for ourselves. Halley is a terrible mother and Moonee is surely doomed if left in her care. Yet, I can not deny Halley loves Moonee. She is fiercely loyal and would do anything for her daughter. At one point she turns to prostitution and taking swimsuit selfies to pay the motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
Bobby is the defacto guardian angels of the children of the Magic Castle. While the children play by the creek that runs by the motel, it is Bobby who spies the old man approaching the unsupervised children. The old man seems kindly, but there is something about him that Bobby does not trust. When confronted the old man smiles and says he was merely looking for a soda machine. It soon becomes subtly apparent the man is a visiting pedophile.
Baker allows the dramatic tension and the comedic tension to flow organically. The Florida Project has a current of unpredictability about it. At times hilarious while also dark and disturbing at others. The children are not stock caricatures. They are cruel, loud, disrespectful, energetic, honest and deeply oblivious.
Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera)* drag a new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto)to a lot of abandoned condos. They delight in the wanton destruction of the gutted decrepit buildings. Finally, Moonee gets the idea to light a fire in the fireplace and gets Luci to light it. Moonee never seems aware that her actions have consequences. This is fitting because Halley seems to bristle anytime someone tries to make her face any kind of consequence.
Vinaite and Prince are wonderful together. There is a tenderness and brute honesty in the way they communicate with each other. They have a bond and love for each other that is obvious by their body language. Prince, in particular, is fearless in how she races about the screen. Vinaite was discovered by Baker on Instagram, but she shows potential. Her emotional outbursts are raw and shocking because they lack any artificial affectations.
Bobby takes pity on Halley and gives her break after break and tries desperately to help her and Moonee out. Bobby’s motives derive from simple basic human decency. We see him struggle to maintain order and compassion. To help those in need while still answering to the owner. Bobby himself lives in the Magic Castle and is seen as one of them, though often times he is also the brunt of their anger.
Dafoe gives one of the warmest performances of his career. It’s not mawkish so much as it is deeply compassionate. Dafoe’s Bobby is a man who feels guilty for being a hard ass but also understands that he must; lest he lose his own place in the Magic Castle too.
The Florida Project is a bleak movie, but the humanity of Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch shine through it at all times. They tell us little things that flesh out the characters by dialogue or by repeated visual shots that have more and more context each time. Throughout the movie, Bobby is doing repairs on the Magic Castle. With him is a young man we assume is a part-time helper. It’s not until much later we find out that the man is Bobby’s son who visits him to try and repair their relationship.
There is a sequence of Moonee in the bathtub playing with her dolls. Baker returns to it throughout the film. It’s not until the third time when we realize that Halley isn’t there. Then where is she? She is in the next room servicing a client. Halley is a hurricane of self-destruction.
Her choices range from bad to galactically stupid. She is a mother, but it has not yet dawned on her what she is doing to Moonee. It’s becoming clear to Bobby, and it breaks his heart. None of this feels manufactured or forced.
Baker creates a documentary-like realism, not through whip pans, zooms, and handheld camera work but through wide static shots. He and his cameraman Alexis Zabe allow The Florida Project to exist almost in a childlike hallucinatory fantasy seeped in the reality the characters are forced to inhabit. The colors of the roadside attractions pop off the screen. The colors add a layer of wonder and sheer tourist driven consumerism that could only exist a hundred yards away from the most magical place on earth.
Much like Baker’s Tangerine, there is an emotional groundswell that slowly builds throughout the movie. There is a moment between Moonee and Jancey that is devastating as we see the smart mouth streetwise kid struggle to put how she is feeling into words. The last forty seconds of the movie will leave many divided on its impact and its meaning. For myself, I think it’s a fantasy. Whose fantasy I’m not sure.
The Florida Project is staggering work of heartfelt human observation. It tells the stories of people on the margins of society. People so close to the American dream they can almost taste it. It doesn’t ask us to love them or even like them, and in so doing we find ourselves hoping they find happiness and some kind of emotional peace. We hope because we understand them maybe more than they understand themselves. Maybe if we’re honest, we hope for them because we would want someone to hope for us too.
*Editors Note: We previously had the wrong character/actor listed.