The Florida Project
Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
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The Florida Project is by no stretch an easy watch, but it’s an incredibly rewarding one.
Tangerine director Sean Baker follows up that formally daring breakthrough film with this heartbreaking and humanistic look at the lives of the semi-transient poor in Kissimmee, Florida.
Six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives with her unemployed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a run-down tourist trap motel within spitting distance of Walt Disney World. It’s summer vacation, and Moonee and her friends are pretty much left to their own devices in a pastel-painted world of strip malls and knock-off souvenir shops. To them it’s a kind of wonderland; abandoned houses are private playgrounds, their motel homes are shaped like fairytale castles and rocket ships, and the lack of parental supervision is simply the freedom to do whatever they want. But what’s heaven to children is really a disturbing dystopia huddled in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom: drugs, booze and the threat of violence are ever-present, and the pressures of poverty are constant.
Not a lot actually happens in The Florida Project – named for Walt Disney’s working title for Disney World – with Baker preferring to spend his time building up a striking and resonant portrait of a people and place rather than hitting rote story beats. Yet there’s an inescapable tension in the contrast between the incredibly likable Moonee and the world she inhabits. For all her brash confidence and charm (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince is simply a dynamo of charisma) Moonee is constantly threatened by two sources of danger. The first, the simple physical threats arrayed around a free range kid, from accidentally burning down an abandoned house to the attentions of a creepy adult, are easily understood, if no less dangerous for that. The second is more abstract: it’s the possible futures on offer for her, as embodied by her mother, a young, chainsmoking, easily angered woman-child who makes ends meet by selling knock-off perfumes and eventually – inevitably – herself.
That’s the real heartbreak in The Florida Project, and Baker offers no concrete happy endings. He does offer hope, though, in the form of human kindness and rough-hewn compassion. That’s where Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the manager of the motel, comes in, a harried and overworked soul who must herd his passel of hard-luck tenants as best he can. It’s a fantastic role for Dafoe, who imbues the character with a mix of seen-it-all cynicism and real warmth – those who are used to him playing villains should recall that he was also, at one time, Jesus for Martin Scorsese. For all that the antics of Moonee and her friends vex him, Bobby is an avuncular, almost paternal figure who wants to protect them from the world. But he also wants to protect himself, maintaining an emotional distance – he knows how hard the world is, and what it probably has in store for these kids.
That these dramas play out in the candy-coloured Disney hinterlands adds a sharp but subtle element of class and capitalism critique to the proceedings, and it’s interesting to note that the Walt Disney Company is the second biggest employer in Kissimmee. But what Disney is selling here, according to The Florida Project, is a lie, and a particularly cruel one: the message that happiness comes only through conspicuous consumption, and the gates of the Happiest Place on Earth are barred to the minimum wage working poor. When you can see heaven through a chain-link fence, then by simple contrast wherever you are must seem an awful lot like hell.
The Florida Project is by no stretch an easy watch, but it’s an incredibly rewarding one. Once again, Sean Baker has granted us ingress into a world and an underclass of people we might normally ignore or sideline, and allowed us to see the sheer humanity, generosity, and tragedy therein.