The Florida Project is a warm, sun-drenched look at the magic and darkness of childhood in America’s poverty stricken areas
At the end of The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2015 film Tangerine, I just sat in the dark theater watching the silent end credits roll by. So did most of the people in the theater. It’s the kind of ending that hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s surprising considering the movie’s opening credits play against a pastel pink wall and scored with Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” The first half of the movie as a whole is splashed with colorful pastels, bright blue skies, and whimsical cinematography that would make Wes Anderson blush. However, as the story progresses around our young protagonist, those colors seem a little less bright, the skies give way to rain, and we begin to tighten in with hyper focus on our characters.
Taking place in the Kissimmee, FL, which is basically the underbelly of the tourist and theme park areas of Orlando, Baker, similarly to Tangerine, explores the people that the rest of America has forgotten. In this case, it’s the residents of a strip of seedy motels that stand in the shadow of the mega resorts. Though an occasional tourist passes through, the motel is mostly inhabited by poor families including Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother chronically unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite — a great debut performance). Moonee runs through the overgrown landscape with her friends tormenting the residents and tourists, yet are blissfully unaware of how truly devastating the area and people are. To them the motel — named “Magic Castle” no relation to the Magic Kingdom — is truly magical.
However, Moonee’s life of getting food from Halley’s friend Ashley’s diner job or churches and helping her mom sell perfume to tourists outside upscale resorts is anything but magical. Though we’re completely aware of the life the Moonee is living, Baker does an incredible job portraying the kind of ignorance only a child experiences. One that shields them from the hardships around them, even when they’re so close to home. The first half of the film is largely episodic. We watch Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and later Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they beg for money outside an ice cream shop, run through abandoned condos, and torment the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe — a solid performance by the veteran actor).
But like all good things, it has to come to an end. However, the brilliance of The Florida Project is that Moonee, like most kids, is so unaware of how bad things are that nothing ever seems different. Of course, for Halley, desperation sets in as money runs dry and each passing day reveals a new challenge to get through. Moments of joy like watching fireworks in a field or flipping of helicopters full of tourists are unsecured with dread. That partially has to be credited to Baker, but also to Vinaite, who makes Halley more than a one-note incapable young mother.
For that reason, Bobby takes a particular interest in helping Halley and Moonee. Especially since his relationship with his son (Caleb Landry Jones — who was seen earlier this year in Get Out) is strained at best. He works hard to bring some relief to the pair’s plights. Though, they run deeper than he even imagines. Baker proved that he was a director that understands characters and their growth with Tangerine, but with The Florida Project he shows that he’s a subtly innovative filmmaker. In one heartbreaking sequence we watch as Moonee takes a bath on three separate occasions. The first seems joyful and innocent enough. The second feels more empty. And the third is gut-wrenching. But he’s not obvious with the progression. In many instances you don’t realize the path he’s going down until you’re at the end. But then it all seems more brilliant for it. An extended sequence where Moonee eats breakfast at one of the upscale resorts — they sneak in of course — focuses completely on the joy that she’s feeling. But in a single cut, we realize that the joy is only in Moonee’s point of view. And that there’s real darkness behind it.
Prince gives one of the best performances by a young actor in recent memory. Like Jacob Tremblay in Room, she is able to tap into the well of emotions that kids feel, but don’t completely understand. But outside of that, she also shows the wonder in the simplest things without feeling like she’s performing. She’s remarkable. She also makes the movie a complete joy to watch. Even though with each passing scene you know that things aren’t as bright as they seem, your adventures with the kids are a sun-drenched romp through their kingdom.
The Florida Project isn’t a critique on the poor or an indictment of the system that makes it rampant in this country. Instead, it’s a portrait of one slice of poverty in the United States and the difficulties that come along with it. More specifically, it explores adolescence in one of those situations. But the way that Sean Baker explores it is so innovative and exciting that it has to be one of the best directorial efforts of the year. Kids are blissfully ignorant — until they’re not. The final minutes of The Florida Project so beautifully show that in one of the best movie endings I’ve seen this year. It’s one filled with hope and warmth, as is the rest of the movie. If you take anything away from The Florida Project, it’s that there is magic in childhood and it’s one of the most important things to happen to you in life.
★★★★½ out of 5