It’s hard to describe Sean Baker’s The Florida Project in a way that conveys its greatness without making it sound sentimental. Moonee is six. She lives in the shadow of Disney World, in a stretch of central Florida dominated by cheap thrills and off-brand amusements. Home is a room in a motel called the Magic Castle.
This is an unmagical kingdom. It includes a zone of strip clubs, strip malls, and knockoff souvenir shops. Magic Castle is a purple-colored eyesore built in the hopes of getting spillover customers who can’t afford Disney World. Instead, it looks like the land that Mickey Mouse forgot — a refuge for the near homeless. But for Moonee (who is played by an incredible young actress named Brooklynn Prince), the Magic Castle and its surroundings are a land of endless enchantment and nonstop adventure.
The Florida Project is an all-too-common story of a single mother and her daughter on the edge of the social ladder. However, it is told in a way that embraces its details instead of trying to achieve some sort of universal statement. The Magic Castle motel houses all kinds, from the tourists looking for something cheap (or, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, booking the wrong hotel) to the working class who have basically turned it into permanent lodging.
Moonee is mischievous and fearless, heroically bratty, and devilishly cute. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is very much a presence in Moonee’s life. She’s perhaps more big-sisterly than maternal, though she does whatever she can to keep them housed, clothed, fed, and entertained.
The Florida Project sounds like a downer, and sometimes it is (but not when the kids are around). Prince is a youthful force of nature as Moonee, and her friend Jancee (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother across the way, is her equal in mischief.
The girls are hardly aware they exist on the poverty line; They’re always up for a prank, a spitting contest, or a new way to scam strangers for an ice cream. It’s quite endearing. We basically journey through the day-to-day life of a wide-eyed, funny, creative kid. She’s the kind of kid who puts a dead fish in the pool to bring it back to life, and turns off the power to the entire motel just to see what happens.
There’s nothing overly special about Moonee or her life in typical movie
ways. Every day is a bit of an adventure for her, but Baker is careful not to romanticize that at the same time. Moonee and Scooty are like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer; The service road is their Mississippi River. They cook up
pranks and follow their whims. But of course the audience is simultaneously conscious of an undertow of sorrow, anxiety and dread. We are well aware of the possible consequences, and also of the grim circumstances that grant Moonee her freedom. She is in every sense a child at risk. We watch her Little Rascal antics increasingly sure that something terrible is going to happen.
As The Florida Project progresses, we realize that Moonee’s mother Halley is sliding away socially and economically. She struggles to make the rent, can’t get a job, and sells perfume in the parking lots of the fancier hotels in Orlando. Someone else who senses that Halley and Moonee are good people on slippery terrain is the hotel manager Bobby (played perfectly by Willem Dafoe).
In a long, very notable career, this is one of Dafoe’s best performances. The actor’s soul-deep performance is alert to every nuance, and his achievement is even more notable considering the scene-stealing kid actors he’s surrounded by. Halley quit her job as a stripper when customers started expecting closer contact. Bobby gives her a sympathetic ear, but can’t keep the landlord at bay. It may seem like a cliché that the desperate young woman drifts into prostitution, but it’s also a cold, hard fact of life. He has seen dozens of Moonees and Halleys come through his motel, and yet he can’t quite completely detach from the human lives in the rooms he rents. Some of our greatest films achieve their greatness by presenting us with characters who feel fully-realized and three-dimensional. Moonee, Halley, and Bobby achieve the same kind of life beyond the film about them.
The film is honest about the limits of benevolence, and about the wishful thinking that can cloud our understanding of the world. Its final scenes are devastating, and also marvelously ambiguous. It’s enough to make you want to slow down the next time you pass a place like the Magic Castle. The Florida Project is a perfectly modulated, beautiful piece of work
Image Source: Cannes Film Festival