The fiercely independent “The Florida Project” seems like the most unlikely of places to begin a heartbreaking journey of jumbled emotions. Throughout this two hour visual verite feast, you’ll be hit with moments of joy and sadness, inspiration and despondency, and a cinematic romanticism so goddamn riveting that you just can’t tear yourself away.
The film follows mischievous Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her immature and irresponsible mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) over the course of a sweltering Florida summer. The two call the candy-colored highway motel The Magic Castle their home (for $35 a night). Despite her bleak surroundings and life of poverty, Moonee celebrates every day unaware with a fervor for life, although her untamed wild streak often lands her in trouble with the stern yet compassionate motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Moonee goes on imaginative adventures with her playmates (Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera) in tow, traversing the urban tourist jungle of Orlando where she exists, nearly invisible, alongside manufactured Disney-fied happiness.
The film draws inspiration from independent films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “American Honey,” with director Sean Baker‘s camera quietly observing and refraining from telling us what to think or feel or even telling us where to look. We are a casual observer, often seeing the world from the point of view of six year old Moonee but with the astuteness of an adult’s eye. We watch as confused and unhappy tourists come and go, as Bobby struggles to keep the property up to the bare minimum standards, as the motel’s fly-by-night residents pack up and leave for good, as random perverts stop by to harass the children — or worse. The limited perspective is effective, like when you finally realize why Baker is giving us so many shots of the young child in a bathtub.
This is fully experiential filmmaking that confronts our discomfort by thrusting us straight into the heart of a forgotten segment of America that many of us would like to ignore. These are the people, the transient families, that most of us don’t want to see; they’re the folks that inspire us to avert our eyes as we pass by. This film forces us to look at them, to take notice, to care.
As with Baker’s previous film “Tangerine” (which was remarkably shot entirely on an iPhone), the film is beautifully crafted, a sweeping, fluid achievement that cements Baker’s role as a cinematic artist. This time around he’s fortunate to be working with a much better camera but his eye for creative framing and intricate attention to detail remains unchanged. He’s tuned in to the wonder and innocence of childhood, bringing a pure and unbridled view of the world to his style (the film often darts back and forth to mirror the short attention span of a pack of feral kids, for instance). You can say the film is a contradiction of sorts, an emotionally devastating yet handsomely polished look at poverty and neglect among those living on the outskirts of accepted society.
This is a beautiful and heartbreaking exploration of modern life in America, a realistic peek at poverty that is not romanticized nor glamorized. The sad truth is that people really do live this way. Children are grossly unsupervised and single parents are doing the best they can to make ends meet. Halley is unquestionably an unaccountable and unfit mother and Moonee is a completely untamed, out of control little girl. But how can Moonee ever learn right from wrong when she has so little parental involvement in her life?
Bobby does what he can to be a caretaker to both the property and to his residents. I can’t stress enough that this is a career best performance from Dafoe. His role as an empathetic motel manager / surrogate parent is touching and understated in a way that deeply affected me. Dafoe is so good — so good — that here’s hoping he will sweep the supporting acting categories at every single awards ceremony this year.
On the opposite spectrum, it’s important to note that Baker loves to cast unknowns in his films — a decision that sometimes means their acting skills leave a lot to be desired. There’s some obvious non-acting from Vinaite, but it only serves to reinforce her authenticity (she was discovered on Instagram). Prince, who at times comes across as irritating and annoying, is going to be the breakout star of this one.
Now let’s talk about that divisive ending.
I’ll avoid any overt spoilers, but I think the ending hits it out of the park. The finale perfectly captures the dreamlike manifestation of a child’s imagination and blind optimism in the face of insignificance. Since the film is often seen through the eyes of a 6 year old poverty-stricken little girl, the finale not only makes perfect sense, but it’s one of the most memorable of the year.
This is a film about childhood and youthful optimism, a film about making the most of what little you have in life. Moonee is blissfully unaware about how dire her situation actually is until the film’s final minutes. And where can a child to go escape when reality finally smacks them in the face? An imaginary playland of optimism and hope.