4.5 out of 5 stars.
Sean Baker’s film “The Florida Project” is set mere miles from the most magical place on Earth, which makes the plight of the characters it explores all the more sobering. While tourists spend lavish amounts of money on vacations at Walt Disney World, residents in nearby Kissimmee struggle to scrounge together enough cash to pay their rent, surrounded all the while by colorful, run-down shops trying to pander to visitors with promises of souvenirs and discounted Disney tickets, a constant reminder of a better way of living that is just out of reach.
The main focus of the film is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her struggling young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley and Moonee live at the Magic Castle, a brilliant purple motel run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Almost all of the tenants at the Magic Castle are permanent residents who can’t afford a house or even an apartment, so they cram their whole families into one-bedroom hotel rooms; the only occasional tourists who pass through usually end up there by mistake while trying to find their way to the Magic Kingdom. Halley doesn’t have a real job, relying on haunting the nearby resorts and taking advantage of tourists to make most of her money, and even those that do, like Halley’s friend Scooty’s (Christopher Rivera) mom are barely able to make ends meet.
It’s a cruddy way of life, but it appears almost magical when seen through Moonee’s eyes. A lot of this has to do with the cinematography, which brings color and warmth to some of the seediest areas just outside Orlando. Moonee spends the long summer days roaming around with Scooty and their new friend from a neighboring motel, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). They hike past kitschy gift shops and abandoned pastel houses; they beg strangers for money to buy ice-cream; they antagonize Bobby. Moonee is a bit of a troublemaker (in the first scene we see her spitting on a neighbor’s car) but an adorably precocious one who takes joy in her simple surroundings, not caring that her family doesn’t have money—a stark contrast to the reality of her situation, which the viewer picks up more hints about than Moonee ever fully grasps. Maybe it’s derived from her way of life, maybe it’s instinctual, but Moonee is also extremely fierce and independent, and doesn’t hesitate to stand up to adults. Prince walks the line between all these traits perfectly, so that Moonee never comes off as too bratty, or annoying, or cutesy. The resulting performance is breath-taking, and one of the best in recent memory to come from someone so young.
Newcomer Vinaite is also brilliant as Moonee’s mom. The story plops the audience right in the middle of Halley and Moonee’s lives, with no backstory. We don’t know who Moonee’s dad is, or where he went; we don’t know how Halley got herself into this situation, a single mom who can’t find a job who can barely scrape together enough cash to pay her rent before it’s due. We know that she has been in jail before, and that she possesses a fierce character like her daughter, albeit on a much more extreme (and profane) level. One of the wonderful things about “The Florida Project” is that it plays to the stereotypes many middle class individuals hold about those who are basically homeless. In terms of her attitude, and the things she’ll do to make a buck, we aren’t given much reason to like Halley. But it’s through her obvious love for her daughter that we learn to, if not like her, at least sympathize with her situation.
But the film’s most pleasant surprise is Dafoe, who gives one of the best performances of his career as Bobby. Bobby must balance running a business with his desire to help out his less fortunate tenants as much as he can—a desire that he doesn’t show, but that is obvious to the audience, especially in many of his interactions with Moonee. He is in a way a father figure in her life; ultimately, he is the one always looking out for her in a way that no one else does, not even her mom.
Chris Bergoch and Baker’s screenplay is riddled with humor and heartbreak; the result is a thoughtful and searingly honest portrayal of childhood as well as adulthood and a way of life that is often ignored by most of middle class America. The film ends as abruptly as it begins, but it’s right that we exit the lives of these people as suddenly as we entered them. The fact that Baker shot the film’s emotional final scene not entirely legally feels oddly appropriate, as the kids whose dreams will likely never come true break through to the place that promises that very thing. Even there, even in their imagination, they are running away—they don’t belong. The film’s title is a reference to the name Walt Disney gave to his early plans to build Walt Disney World, but used here, it is a way of showing just how much of a work in progress this city—actually, this state, and this country—still is, as it tries to reconcile the daily struggles of those living just out of reach of the Magic Kingdom.
Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.