Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair
Director: Sean Baker
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Sean Baker is a deeply humanist filmmaker. His last picture, 2015's Tangerine, was the unlikeliest of buddy comedies; a tale of two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles shot on an iPhone 5s. Rather than play as an exploitative snapshot of people living fast and loose on the fringes, the film was starkly unsentimental as well as gorgeously humane. His latest effort, the ably titled The Florida Project, merges similar sensibilities in order to weave a story about the lives of poor children, their haphazard guardians, and a kindly budget motel manager forced to play father figure.
If Tangerine was Baker's lo-fi view of street-level adult friendship, then The Florida Project is his Technicolor epic about childhood. The central location; a purple-colored budget motel near the Magic Kingdom, is an epicenter for youthful fantasy, even as it harbors adulthood pain, addiction, and dashed dreams. Baker spends as much time with the motel's inhabitants as he does snaking around its corridors, stairwells, and decrepit rooms. Moreover, The Florida Project is warmly attuned to the present-tense viewpoint of children; wondrously shot with both widescreen 35mm grandeur and intimate low-angles by cinematographer Alexis Zabe.
When we first meet six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), she's hanging around with her rag-tag group of friends, including Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who enjoy joking around under stairwells and spitting on parked cars from the second floor balcony. The owner of one of the vehicles covered in spit forces Moonee to clean up her mess, which leads to a friendship with the owner's young daughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Later, the inseparable trio set fire to an abandoned condo, leading to a breach between Moone's irresponsible mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and Scooty's mom, Ashley (Mela Murder). All the while, the Magic Castle’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), begrudgingly attends to the needs of his down-and-out clients, even as he becomes something of a watchful guardian to the young children. What transpires is essentially a plotless, but never scattershot, expression of lives operating under the surface of mainstream society. Though Hailey is by all definitions a terrible mother; running perfume scams, getting high all day, and selling her body as Moone takes a bath in the adjoining room, Baker never condemns her. Truthfully, all of the characters populating The Florida Project are presented as deeply flawed; including the seemingly good-hearted Bobby, whom we learn is estranged from his family and possibly depressed.
Very few films about childhood actually take the perspective of children; instead, they attempt to channel the nostalgia of youth through the prism of adulthood. While the adult characters here are given genuine screen time (and Baker never downplays their inherent selfishness), the film operates primarily as a paean to a child's sense of play. Throughout, the camera tracks the kids as if they have limitless potential; scampering, joking, watching an old woman sunbathing nude by the pool, and begging for change to buy ice cream. Often, flashes of the adult world enter their purview; helicopters lifting off en route to Disney World, a honeymooning couple mistakenly arriving at the budget motel, and in one stomach-churning sequence, a pervy old man hanging around as they innocently play outside. Throughout, the child actors appear to interact naturalistically, with Prince emerging with one of the more precocious and eventually devastating child performances in recent memory. Moone is a tragic character; even more so than her profoundly damaged mother, because she hasn't yet comprehended the extreme sadness of the adult world.
The Florida Project is an exceedingly beautiful film; humane, true, and achingly pragmatic. If there's a flaw, it may be in the way Baker frames the final moments, but even that can be contextualized in relation to how the city of Orlando is dependent upon the capitalist model of Disney World. The fact that so many poor citizens (mostly minorities) live in such close proximity to this supposed "happiest place on Earth" is an irony not lost on Baker, who constructs an ending that at first feels cheaply unsatisfying, until it emerges as a symbolic encapsulation of lives lived simply passing through. Even though Moone will grow up and encounter her own adulthood trials, her purple-colored fantasy environment is rooted in a place where people come and go, much like the hustle and bustle of the Magic Kingdom itself. This makes her last effort to escape her surroundings and run, much like she and her friends have done countless times around their ramshackle milieu, all the more powerful. Following a tearful confession of friendship, Moone takes off in pursuit of a dream far bigger than the fake capitalist sign-waving of Disney; that of seeing a larger world outside her own, with all the eventual heartbreak and disappointment that entails.