This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Sean Baker
In a persistent rhythm of sound, multitudes of cicadas fill the ambience of a sweaty, humid Florida summer. Nearby, alligators float among lily pads next to another Disney souvenir shop. Within a matter of minutes, THE FLORIDA PROJECT immediately and tangibly captures a typical summer day in central Florida. The film’s main character is a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Moonee lives with her mom, Halley (Brita Vinaite), in a motel called The Magic Castle. Each week’s rent is uncertain, and with that, so is Moonee’s safety. Despite this, Moonee creates magic out of the ordinary, seizing any opportunity for mischief and childhood freedom. Among the rooms of the bright purple building, other residents also rent out the motel as an apartment, living in its harshly colored halls with hopeful permanence. In an astonishingly touching, real, and raw performance, Prince’s charm, charisma, and innocence stand at the heart of the film. But because the film contains a youthful heart, its exploration of poverty and helplessness are both equally bearable and tragic. No film since last year’s MOONLIGHT has been able to so successfully capture the authenticity of a human life, while also deftly inviting the audience to care. Ultimately, THE FLORIDA PROJECT tells a story of the forgotten—those that everyone from politicians and average people have dangerously disregarded as of late.
Moonee and Jancy share a moment in their world
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) plays the manager of The Magic Castle, ever vigilant with his sports sunglasses and spray tan. In a simple moment and after a long day, Bobby lights a cigarette while he watches the building’s timed lights flicker on. His essence is deeply engrained within the motel’s walls, as he cares just as much about pool rules as he does for the local children’s safety. Dafoe’s performance skillfully radiates the difficulty of each decision in every movement and with every little glance. But, in his unwavering devotion to the building’s maintenance, moments of empathy endanger the order he seeks to maintain. Bobby can’t fully commit to the motel’s people in an unfortunate and familiar story.
Moonee and her friends, among them Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), laugh and play in fallen oak trees and abandoned housing projects. They have burping contests and run to get ice cream, sharing a cone before it melts in the summer heat. It’s all so silly and awesomely ridiculous, but through all of this, the film is most admirable because it treats its children like people. It’s also unfortunate that this works well, because all have grown up seeing and experiencing more hardship than most. At an especially poignant moment, Moonee tells Jancey that she “can always tell when adults are about to cry.” The children are so aware of their surroundings, transforming their fun-loving persistence into something magical. It also begs the question: at what point do we lose this?
When did we lose THIS?
While consistent throughout, the film slowly takes more time away from childhood hijinks and adventures for the realities of adulthood. We spend more time with Halley and her struggle to pay rent and find food, illegally selling goods at nearby resorts. This contrasts beautifully and tragically with the ever-present shadow cast by Disney World. Just as many children grow up dreaming to visit the park’s castle, and escaping into its reality, Moonee sports a sweat-soaked Disney T-shirt as she watches a nearby resort helicopter escape into the sky. Meanwhile, tourists and visitors pass through the area, barely casting a glance at what seems to just be another forgettable sight on their vacation. But these are people, and they have real lives and problems and desires. They live day to day, paycheck to paycheck, and love and hate and cry when they’re sad. At times the film is so tragic that it’s hard to watch, and for many who go to the movies to escape, THE FLORIDA PROJECT will swiftly bring you back to reality.
It’s a simple premise really: in a Florida motel, a Mom struggles to provide for her daughter. But the film contains so much surprising depth that it’s incredibly easy to forget that the characters aren’t real and that there’s a camera, crew, and actors all telling a story. At some level the film will spark something within you, but it’s hard to say what exactly, as I expect that many will see the film differently. Maybe it’ll be small, like taking a longer look as you drive by the stranger at the bus stop. Or maybe it will be big, like taking time to read and learn about the homelessness problem in the United States. Sadly, THE FLORIDA PROJECT doesn’t offer any grand solutions to its problems, and through its fair and decent handling of its flawed and damaged characters, the film’s only request is that we care. Maybe that’s a good start.