The Florida Project: A Movie Review
The Antithesis of the Magic Kingdom
Close by where the tale of “The Florida Project” meanders along, there is a land that is next door, but essentially far far away, the Magical Kingdom of Disney World. It is a place that sprinkles fairy dust as wide as a rainbow in the sky. Sadly, little of that wide-eyed awe and childhood hope seems to settle on the adults and children that live in the poorly named motels that pepper the roads surrounding that magical place. Within their brightly painted walls labeled with happy-go-lucky names like the Magic Castle Motel, is where we discover the young residents, portrayed most magnificently by Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto, playing and wandering away their summer days. Seemingly care-free, but far from it.
It’s a tawdry strip of motels, souvenir shops, and soft-serve ice cream joints that is the playground for six year old Moonee (Prince) and her pals. Her portrayal along with her pals is where the heart and soul of Sean Baker’s new film, “The Florida Project” lives. All three are perfection, and without their exceptional skills, this piece might have faltered, but it shines as brightly as the blue skies overhead. Baker expertly unravels the day to day existence that is Moonee’s life. The three kids wander, filling their time with explorations, getting into all sorts of mischief along the way. It’s beautifully chronicled in this stunning and simple straight forward film, especially that opening moment of friends calling out to each other. It’s all good this says, until one of those unsupervised adventures is the catalyst for a dramatic change in the alliances within that makeshift village, but these kids, so beautiful guided by director Baker (Tangerine) are too unaware to see what is coming.
Along side Moonee is her very young and very complicated mother, Halley, played exactingly by the wonderful Bria Vinaite. Sharing space and time, the two are barely getting by, on pizza and donated food, living out of a small motel room paid for by parking lot perfume sales and other illegal enterprises. Halley is basically more like a troubled big sister who hasn’t quite figured out how to make it in this big world. Survival is all she hopes for, at any cost, and even that is tentative. Her volatility is simmering under her casual saunter, but when it rages out, as it does in a shocking bit of friendship conflict, it registers as violent, disturbing, upsetting, and terribly sad, all rolled up in a ball of frustration and abandonment. We don’t really find out her backstory, but it can’t be good.
Living in these abstract ‘projects’ are families that are on the edge, a Baker specialty. All the unique stories are presented within this solid piece of storytelling without hitting us over the head with their difficult and different situations. This motel may have, once been where families used to stay while on vacation at Disney World, but those days are long gone. Disney is not the cheap family holiday it once was, and as seen with the arrival of some lost Brazilian tourists, this is not the Polynesian Hotel. Not even close. The Magic Castle is basically a SRO (Single Room Occupancy hotel, like the ones that used to dot the more troubled neighborhoods of Manhattan). Having to vacate, with the help of the sincere and gentle hotel manager, Bobby, wonderfully played by William Defoe, one night a month so they aren’t officially creating a permanent residence, this is a temporary home to these people, and Bobby takes a casual pride in trying to maintain safety and security within the walls and floors of this sprawling and disordered village. Defoe is magnificent in his easy-going presence, caring and watching over all the kids, and even occasionally, Moonee’s mother, regardless of how poorly he is spoken to. He’s the father and care taker most of these souls don’t have and are in need of. The scene with the older man wandering around the parking lot says it all, and it’s powerful. Dafoe fills those shoes effortlessly and with such conviction.
Alex Zabé’s cinematography of bright colors and bold shapes resonates a mood and ordered chaos that shivers down our privileged spines, but what Barker, with script assistance from Chris Bergoch, does is avoid judgement within this social construct. “The Florida Project” and it’s final scene resonates with the power of destruction, goodness, hope, and despair. All combined in the sad truth of the situation. We know in a way that this might be the best thing for all concerned, while also understanding Moonee’s need to escape from pain into the wonderment of hope and fantasy. Hope and fear lives within that run, and we want to join them, running free and fast, holding their hands, even as we know how temporal their escape will be.