The Florida Project
The Florida Project is the kind of movie everyone should experience: a bizarrely authentic, almost documentarian look at the harsh realities of poverty, and how the innocence of childhood can still thrive in them. It’s one of the most genuine experiences I’ve had in a movie, ever. Director Sean Baker shows his knack for finding and putting on display raw humanity, and his cast serves him well, from the deservedly-revered Willem Dafoe all the way on down to the child cast. Never has a movie portrayed children more than this.
The film focuses on a small group of children, mainly a girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), whose parents are living indefinitely at a strip of divey motels just outside of Disney World in Kissimmee, Fla. We’re introduced to what appears to be everyday life for these “motel rats:” running back and forth between businesses, terrorizing guests, and soliciting money for ice cream from passing tourists. Their life is rendered in beautiful childlike wonder, as Baker saturates the screen with vibrant pinks, blues, and greens, turning these mundane, decaying establishments into the dreamscape castles that the kids see them as.
Constantly cleaning up the kids’ mess is Magic Castle’s motel manager Bobby, played by Dafoe. An ever-tired but never-dismissive shepherd guarding over his unappreciative flock of tenants, Bobby tries to make the living experience as good as possible for his guests while also adhering to the policies of his franchise owner. Not only does he fix power outages and patch the peeling paint on his castle’s façades (essentially without any staff to help him), but he throws himself into the struggles of his tenants’ lives in order to make whatever positive difference he can. Bobby is a tribute to the battered, burdened people out there who stick their neck out, even amidst their own slew of problems, to help those even less fortunate than them. Dafoe is simply warm to watch. I wanted to hug him.
On the other hand, we’re shown in tragic honesty how some people navigate and survive poverty by cutting corners any way they can. These people are Moonee’s mother Hallee (Bria Vinaite). Taking advantage of others, putting off financial obligations, spinning any lie she can to cover her ass; this is a woman who has learned the ways to slip through and just barely manage the incredibly difficult situations her life presents her with. And yet, The Florida Project doesn’t condemn her. It shows her choices in their fullest, ugliest truths, and showcases the tragic effects of this lifestyle on a growing child. But Baker ultimately settles on the side of empathy, marring his beautiful, vibrant color palette with magnetically somber tragedy, because Baker knows that Bobby would be on that side as well.
If there’s one thing that could possibly stand out as “best” in this masterpiece of humanity, it’s the children, played perfectly by Prince and Valeria Cotto. Credit is due all around to the child actors, Baker, and co-writer Chris Bergoch for capturing the attitudes and idiosyncrasies of inventive and imaginative kids. There are things in this movie that you’ve never heard a kid say in a movie before, but that I’d be damn well willing to bet you’ve heard them say in real life. That’s what’s so special about The Florida Project; how authentically it’s able to portray the traits and imperfections of real people. This is simply as thin as the veil of cinema can get. This is the closest to reality a movie can be and still be a movie.
The only thing I can think to complain about is the film’s slowness. Even at less than two hours, there were multiple times I found myself wondering when we’d be getting on to the next major part of the movie. And while The Florida Project is meticulous and determined to let its scenes breathe, which is admirable, it doesn’t have the same compelling, “take in the world” feeling that, say, Blade Runner elicits. I think there could have been a few short scenes cut in their entirety, allowing for the rest of the film to maintain its relaxed, plodding, summer day atmosphere while making the complete experience feel less tiresome.
The ending “sequence” (I won’t spoil), is the only deviation from Baker’s quiet, unnoticeable camera, as he switches from standard theatrical equipment to his iPhone to follow the children on one more adventure. It feels jarring at first, but its urgent clip informs the fleeting joys of childhood present throughout the story, even at the end when the dark realities around them have mounted themselves to their most depressing.
The Florida Project is simply radiant. It’s tragic and genuine but charming all the while. The entire cast is unbelievably believable. The writing is brutal, funny, and realistic simultaneously. It’s a love letter to the hopefulness of youth, however ignorant it may be, and a plea to never let it disappear from our lives. The Florida Project shows that if we all do our best to be like Bobby, we may not be able to stop the onslaught of struggles life brings, but we can make the lives around us a little bit warmer.