Living Like Children in The Florida Project
A child’s imagination is magical, even in uninspiring places. For six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), that place is in central Florida, near the enchanting Disney World. Living with her unmotivated, single mother Halley (played by first-time actress Bria Vinaite) in a pink and purple tawdry motel ironically named the Magic Castle, Moonee transforms the lower-class streets and open fields in Florida into her magical playground of endless adventures in The Florida Project.
Directed by Sean Baker, the film treads on glorifying the impoverished life. Baker is previously best known for his equally eccentric and innovative film Tangerine, shot entirely with an iPhone. Like Tangerine, his newest film follows people in unusual circumstances. He balances fantasy and reality with extreme caution, and as a result, ends up with a charming tale that touches on troubling themes, with Moonee’s fantastical and escapist imagination taking center stage.
Accompanied by Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who lives in another room at the Magic Castle, and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives in a similarly cheap motel nearby, Moonee spends her days spitting loogies on parked cars, exploring abandoned buildings, and playing with dead fish, living the life of a child—acting impulsively without thinking of the consequences. She and her friends live by colorful supermarkets and big knockoff brands with wide shots reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s symmetry. The kids wander everywhere, break windows with bricks, and use their innocence to bum money from strangers to buy ice cream, which makes it taste all the better.
Their daily escapades are all led by Moonee, played by the seven-year-old Prince in one of the most pleasant performances of 2017. She’s sassy, foul-mouthed, and reckless, but also confident, transparent, and daring. She makes the best with what she has, which isn’t much, as her mother struggles to pay rent every week—selling perfume with Moonee outside country clubs and soliciting sex during the evenings, drowning out the noises with loud music while Moonee plays in the bathtub.
Halley’s relationship to Moonee, which is more like one of a big sister than an actual mother, is tough to pin. Director Sean Baker wants the viewer to empathize with Halley’s situation, but at the same time, Halley does nothing to gain our sympathies. Halley does nothing to try to get her daughter and herself out of their situation and into Moonee’s dream life—a home, a stable job, a family—something Moonee wants despite being satisfied with her current lifestyle. Halley is despicable at every turn and fails to change by the film’s end.
On Halley’s case is the motel manager Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe. In one of Dafoe’s most likable roles yet, a far cry from his usual menacing characters, Bobby is loved by all the tenants of the Magic Castle. He’s not the owner, but Bobby enjoys managing his little hectic motel. He lives a somewhat normal life, carrying out routine tasks—fixing laundry machines, moving refrigerators, and listening to tenants’s problems. He watches over Moonee and the other unattended children whose parents work all day. In one of the funnier scenes, Bobby makes conversation with a few storks loitering in the driveway—such is the life of Bobby. He takes on the responsibility of caring for Moonee and Halley, despite Halley’s continued recklessness. He half-heartedly threatens to kick Halley out of the motel multiple times throughout the film and handles escalating situations, which we know can’t continue for Halley and naive Moonee. Aiding wherever necessary, Bobby is a steady, calming presence, one who can handle himself, help others, and keep the motel from running amok.
Aside from the plot, the cinematography is beautiful, a mix of the filmmaking styles between Wes Anderson’s bold-colored symmetrical shots and Andrea Arnold’s close-up vintage, homemade video techniques. Baker offers his own style, however, often experimenting with the film’s tone and adding his own quirky sense of humor, whether it’s watching Moonee and her friends devour ice cream cones, a handicapped man roll over a speed bump, or Moonee taking Jancey to a safari (a cow pasture). It’s the little moments—shopping sprees in convenience markets, pancakes and ice creams, fireworks, and merely skipping place to place—that give the film its charm and make it worthwhile.
The film does run a little too long; at an hour and 55 minutes, there are only so many shots Baker can introduce us to before we get the idea—they’re creative, imaginative children. The pacing is occasionally choppy, with Baker spending too much time with some scenes and too little with others. But there are many moments that stick with you. The Florida Project is indulgent and runs wild with it, and is for the most part completely unpredictable, switching tones in the final minutes as Moonee races toward her ambiguous, innocent ending. We’re all in Moonee’s world, and Moonee is in Disney World, even when she’s not.
Release | 1 October, 2017 (US)
Genre | Drama
Director | Sean Baker
Writer | Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Main Cast | Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto
Rating / Runtime | R / 1h 55m
Personal Rating | 8.0/10