The run-down Magic Castle motel is miles away from the big theme parks, but for seven-year-old Moonee, it may just be the happiest place on earth. It’s where she lives a joyfully feral life, running around the slums of Orlando with her friends, spitting on stranger’s cars, irritating the motel’s kindly manger and scraping together a few dollars to buy a soft-serve cone from the Twistee Treat. Her mother, Halley, is young and barely makes ends meet by selling cheap perfume to tourists. When that doesn’t work, she sells herself.
In the hands of another writer/director, “The Florida Project” could have been a harrowing drama about living far below the poverty line. It could have followed Moonee on the Dickensian journey of horrors that can come with being the child of a negligent parent. Yet Sean Baker’s film is none of those things. It’s an exuberant, funny, nuanced, occasionally-heartbreaking and always life-affirming look at the freedom and beautiful naiveté of childhood. It’s a little gem of a movie that deserves a great big audience.
Off the success of “Tangerine,” a neon-hued tale of two transgender prostitutes filmed exclusively on iPhones, Baker has made another gorgeously shot and intimately told film about those on the outskirts of society. This time it’s the communities formed in art deco motels not far from the magic of Disneyworld. Places that were clearly built as kitschy tourist traps in the ‘60s are now refashioned into makeshift homeless shelters. Sightseeing helicopters constantly fly overhead while nearby streets with names like Seven Dwarfs Lane are lined with gift shops and Disney iconography – a constant reminder of the carefree, affluent vacationers who seem to occupy another dimension than the families who live hand-to-mouth at pay-by-the-day establishments.
In one of those motels lives Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her young daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, stunningly natural). We never learn how Halley and Moonee ended up living at the Magic Castle or much about their lives. Baker observes them documentary-style, giving us a glimpse into one specific moment in their lives and never succumbing to the dramatic impulse to provide exposition. All we know is it’s summer. Moonee is out of school and spends her time goofing off with friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Halley, who was last employed unsuccessfully as a pole dancer, can’t find work even though her friend and neighbor Ashley (Mela Murder) works at a local waffle house.
“The Florida Project” is a rambling, largely formless film. We follow the kids going on adventures, Halley looking for employment and partying at night with her friends. We also meet Bobby (Willem Dafoe, reserved and never better), the motel’s manager and unofficial mayor. He’s gruff and beleaguered, but takes on the role of father figure for the children living under his auspices with gentle grace. It’s Bobby who provides much of the film’s heart and is the focus for one of “Florida Project’s” best scenes where a creepy stranger is found hanging around the motel’s small playground.
Dafoe’s grounded performance is pitch-perfect and he plays beautifully with the rest of the cast, most of whom are first-time actors. Vinaite, who was found via Instagram, gives the best debut performance by a complete unknown since Sasha Lane in “American Honey” (a film which features a similar cinéma vérité, meandering style). Her performance is layered and realistic, turning what could be a one-note cliché – the pot-smoking stripper unable to take care for her young daughter – into a complex and relatable character. You can instinctually feel the strong, almost sisterly bond between the two and sense how much Halley loves her daughter, even if she lacks the maturity to be a fully successful parent.
Vinaite and Dafoe are wonderful, but it’s really the children who carry “The Florida Project,” no easy task for actors a few years away from hitting double digits. All three are fantastic and deliver the kid of unpretentious, authentic performances every child actor aspires to. It’s clear Baker knows how to work with kids extremely well and there are scenes of pure improvisation between the three that add a lot of personality and levity to “Florida Project.” But it’s also clear his script, written with Chris Bergoch, perfectly captures the way rambunctious children talk and behave when left to their own devices.
One can read many things into “The Florida Project.” It can be a film about how gentrification and big business end up punishing the working-class. It can be a film about parenthood, the scars and lessons we glean from even the most imperfect t mom. It can be a film about community and the way our surroundings monumentally impact our development.
But there’s a sweeter, simpler way to look at “The Florida Project” that’s best summed up in my favorite shot of this engrossing, poignant drama. It’s Moonee’s birthday and Halley has a surprise planned for her and Jancey. We see them walk on the shoulder of the highway and past a plethora of discount gift shops. They walk past pastoral, marshy patches and find themselves next to a small lake. Halley has a cheap birthday. As the sun sets, the three watch a magnificent firework show that turns the muggy Florida night into something magical. Moonee doesn’t understand that the display is a nightly occurrence. That the show is for paying tourists, a group to which she will likely never belong. That this is the only kind of party Halley can afford. We see the sky alight with a dazzling display and know it doesn’t make a difference. This is the only life Moonee has ever known. She is happy, confident and instinctively see the beauty in the vast world before her. She has friends to play with and a mom who provides unconditional love. In a moment like that, the world has infinite possibilities.
Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars
Note: I saw “The Florida Project” as a member of The Cinema Club at the Madison Arts Cinema. The Club, which takes place at eight cities nationwide, offers members screenings of yet-to-be-released independent or foreign films along with discussions lead by film scholars and critics. “The Florida Project” is currently available in a very limited release.