Overview: A struggling mother tries to provide for her young daughter as they navigate life from a cheap motel in Orlando, Florida. A24; Rated R; 111 minutes.
A Whole New World: When Walt Disney was scouring the country for the location of his new theme park in the early 1960s, he settled on a section of Orlando, Florida which was, at the time, a blank slate. He needed space, and lots of it, because what he had in mind couldn’t exist in the regular world. He had to create an entire new one from scratch. Disney World thus became a place where you checked your imagination at the door. Who needed one when you were in a place where magic happens?
Sean Baker (Starlet, Tangerine) makes films about people who exist in the parts of our world that sit right under our noses. After Disney bought up the land—47 square miles, bit by bit—and it was revealed that a new theme park was coming, the surrounding area began to rapidly change. The once-barren highways became lined with a steady stream of hotels, motels, restaurants, gift shops, and ice cream parlors. In his latest, The Florida Project, Baker brings us deep inside this oft driven-by labyrinth. When you’re just scraping by in the shadow of the most magical place on earth, what do you do? The adult just tries to get by. The kid? They make their own magic.
No One To Tell Us No: Moonee (Brookylnn Prince) is one of those kids. She’s being raised by a single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the $35-a-night Magic Castle motel. Every so often they have to check out for a night, come back, and check back into a new room because of motel policy against permanent residents. Halley supports Moonee as best she can, hawking wholesale perfume in the parking lot of the high-class resorts that the bulk of the theme park clientele stays at. She often brings Moonee along, which might help with sales, but also because she pretty much has to. Halley often pleads with the motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) for another day or two to settle the rent. She’s trying. But you watch Moonee under these circumstances and you feel for her, can’t help but want to snatch her away and provide some safety and stability.
While we may look at Moonee’s life and worry, this life is all Moonee knows. So she passes her summer days like any other kid—she plays. Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) run to a neighboring motel, head up to the balcony and spit on the cars below—not for the first time. They’re joined soon by young Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to walk down the highway to the ice cream shop, sharing whatever they can get with the change they’ve collected. They explore the nearby abandoned condo complex—a stark, shattering reminder of the housing crisis—where they play house and cause just a wee bit of mischief.
In the press around the film, Baker mentioned The Little Rascals as a chief inspiration. Youthful exuberance certainly bleeds throughout the movie, yet the crevices it fits into are surrounded in stark contrast by the surrounding adult world. But the film doesn’t cheat the humanity of its adult characters—it refuses to judge or scold them. Like in his previous films, especially Tangerine, Baker refuses to fetishize poverty or desperation. Vinaite, who Baker discovered on Instagram, is convincing as a wayward, young single mom who likely didn’t experience much model parenting to lean on. Dafoe is a sneaky great choice to play Bobby, a beaten-down but resilient sort-of-camp counselor. He keeps Bobby grounded, never veering too wildly in either direction when on a dime his day changes, a new problem arises. Bobby has real empathy for his “tenants”, and will stick his neck out for them to help when they most desperately need it. But he has a job to do, and despite the Magic Castle’s obvious flaws, Bobby is proud of this place that he puts so much of his life into.
Or Where To Go: Baker and his cinematographer Alexis Zabe shoot the setting and characters in a way that says there’s truth and beauty in everything, merging a personal, verite approach with wide, colorful vistas. A fallen tree becomes an impromptu jungle gym. The purple of the Magic Castle looks chintzy by day but gorgeous at dusk, particularly in a scene where Bobby stands out on the motel’s balcony just as the nightly fireworks go off in this distance. We know where they’re coming from, and so does Moonee, Jancey, Halley and Bobby. Those fireworks are really for the paying customers who are standing next to Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Daisy (perhaps the similarity of the names is intentional). Next to the motel is a field where helicopters take off and land, and Halley and Moonee make sure to give a special greeting to those more fortunate. The contrast between two totally different realities and their proximity is never lost on the film, because it’s always right in the face of these characters.
In some ways, The Florida Project is reminiscent of Lenny Abrahamson’s 2015 film Room, where a mother in captivity raises her young son in a single room. There, the room becomes a whole world unto itself because of how the young boy treats it. He assigns proper names to the different parts of the room, using his imagination to turn his horrible circumstance—which is all he knows—into a place of fun and wonder. The kids in The Florida Project do largely the same thing. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch constantly put the characters in these clash-of-reality moments, and we watch how the kids create their own reality for themselves. One beautiful but sad scene, in particular, involves Moonee and Halley at a breakfast buffet. In Prince’s best scene, Moonee innocently and hilariously describes all the foods she’s combining and eating and what they taste like. It’s a great moment for Moonee, but we—and her mother—know why and how she’s getting this rare experience. But while she’s there, Moonee is going to make the most of it. We should all take after her.
Overall: Newcomer Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe stand out as Sean Baker offers another bold, beautiful look at those amongst us we usually ignore.