The Florida Project
By: Arlene Allen
The Florida Project is the latest piece of film art by award-winning writer/director Sean Baker, whose previous films include Tangerine (2015), Starlet (2012) and Prince of Broadway (2008). The independent filmmaker’s new offering looks again at people living on the fringe; the outcasts of our current materialistic and capitalistic society, using his notable “run and gun” style of script and cinematography. Baker is acclaimed for using real locations that did not shut down during filming and first-time actors, both of which he puts to excellent use in this extraordinary movie.
Set in Kissimmee, Florida at a motel called The Magic Castle Inn, a place huddling in the shadows of this country’s best-known theme parks, The Florida Project (named after the working title of Walt Disney World as it was being developed) looks at the lives of a small group of children of transients over the course of an unforgettable summer. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live at the hideously purple budget motel along with dozens of the other barely-making it families. Moonee spends her days with friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), harassing tourists at other motels with obnoxious bordering on illegal pranks, hustling them for ice cream and making motel manager Bobby’s (Willem DaFoe) daily life a misery by doing stuff like shutting off the motel’s power. The kids are foul-mouthed, don’t-give-a-damn about rules renegades and they own the streets of Interstate 192.
Meanwhile, Moonee’s mother Halley is trying to keep it together for the family, hustling to keep a roof over their heads and the Department of Children and Families at bay. The mother-daughter team runs scams on unsuspecting tourists at upscale resorts, selling perfumes at a discount and Disney park wristbands of questionable authenticity. They get their meals from Halley’s best friend Ashley (Mela Murder) who works as a waitress at Waffle House.
Their fragile lifestyle derails when the children accidentally set fire to an abandoned housing development. Scooty ends up confessing his part in the blaze and mom Ashley cuts all ties to Halley out of fear the DCF will zero in on her. When food and money become twice as scarce, Halley starts turning tricks to make ends meet. It’s the perfect set-up for disaster and a foreshadowing of an epically unhappy ending.
This film is about as real as it gets. Other than Willem DaFoe, most of the actors are making their first appearance on the big screen. The script, which is mostly improvised, gives the film the feel of a documentary. The tourists that the kids and Halley approach are actual tourists and according to an interview with Baker on IndieWire, after the scenes were shot he’d have to run after those tourists to get them to sign a release granting him permission to use the footage in the film. That and the children’s brilliantly ad-libbed dialogue give the film an authenticity that you don’t see in many major motion picture releases. Baker is noted in the field for this and it is what gives his films that extra-edgy momentum.
The performances are spectacular. DaFoe, who is always incredible, is extremely winning as down on his own luck motel manager Bobby. He understands the people who live at the motel, from Gloria, the crazy old lady who hangs out at the pool with her boobs out (much to the delight of the children) to Halley, whom he’s taken a fatherly interest in helping and protecting. Bria Vinaite is simply ingenuous as Halley and the children are all raw and fresh and as real as only children can be.
The social commentary is both obvious and subtle. Poverty is a vicious circle, where poverty begets more poverty, and drives the poor into increasingly risky behavior to keep family and the little they have intact. Even the most well-meaning of people fail to completely notice those less fortunate than themselves right under their noses, especially while vacationing in one of the most fabricated edifices of “happily ever after.”
I’m sure the odds of finding a viewer, much less a reviewer, who has stayed at the Magic Castle Inn are pretty narrow, but I’m actually one of them. It was the motel my daughter and I used to stay in when we traveled to the theme parks more than a dozen years ago. This film evoked feelings in me that standard movie fare rarely bring out, the main one being guilt. For all of the times we stayed there, I never noticed the poverty-stricken residents that make that motel their home.
Regardless of that, this is not intended to be a film that makes people comfortable. Like all of Baker’s work, it’s intended to provoke. The Florida Project is a seriously immediate in-your-face piece of art. I’m sure many will take exception to unsupervised children running around misbehaving while shouting some fairly vile obscenities, the mother’s drug use and scams (that irresponsibly involve her own child no less) and to the somewhat degenerate actions of a population of people usually dismissed with the callous admonishment of “get a job/life.” Those are exactly the people who need to see The Florida Project because life isn’t all about magic kingdoms, rainbows and fireworks.
Look for The Florida Project to be an Oscar front-runner this year.