Sean Baker’s The Florida Project draws us into the lives of residents of the Magic Castle Hotel, living on the fringes of the Florida tourist district, just beyond the reach (and wealth) of Disney’s iconic theme park. It highlights the cruel disparity between ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’, and those that live in poverty just down the street. The wealth, affluence and manicured utopia of Disney versus the brightly coloured, unofficial motels and tourist trap gift shops.
The slice-of-life approach to the storytelling invites us to delve into the experiences of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her best friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), as well as Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
It is the summer holidays and Moonee and her friends are running wild around the hotel and local area. Our introduction sees them getting into trouble for spitting on cars, mouthing off at adults and scrounging ice cream money from passersby. Halley has no inclination to get work, preferring to hang around at the hotel, or sell knock-off perfumes to country club patrons. But this only makes her weekly struggle to make rent a lot worse. Bobby does his best in a demanding and unappreciated job; he doesn’t take any shit and he has to enforce the rules, but he also casts a protective arm around his residents and, in particular, the kids.
Prince is great as Moonee, and there are exceptional performances from all the young cast. The kids are feral, but not malicious. Through no fault of their own, they are uncontrolled and without boundaries, but only in trying to escape the boredom of their summer break from school.
Vinaite is fantastic as Halley. In her debut, Vinaite gives us a natural, yet complex performance. Halley confounds us with her decisions, her lack of control and her reluctance to give Moonee any parental guidance. The only time Halley exercises any authority is when she forbids Moonee from talking to Scooty over a petty grudge. It’s childish behaviour, and yet despite this, she remains a likeable and compelling presence. The fact Halley loves her daughter is never in any doubt, and their bond is evident throughout – whether they’re scamming free hotel breakfasts or taking a trip to watch the theme park fireworks.
Dafoe turns in one of his best performances, in a career loaded with great ones. Bobby has a thankless job managing the hotel. We see him struggle in his relationship with his son, but act as a protective figure in the lives of Halley and Moonee and the other residents. If he’s not quite a surrogate parent, then he’s certainly an element of stability for them. And for all that he does, he is thanked (in general terms) only once.
In some respects, The Florida Project brings to mind indie filmmaker Harmony Korine, coming off like a sun drenched Gummo – albeit with a more linear narrative, and of course his Florida-set nightmare Spring Breakers. Both Korine and Baker explore the lives of people on the edges of poverty, but where Korine’s focus has leaned towards the bizarre and distressing, Baker brings a depth and warmth to his characters, skilfully allowing them to find their way into your heart, despite their questionable choices. And this is the essence of why The Florida Project is so great.
Baker’s direction is subtle and nuanced, permitting small events to go unnoticed until a catalyst allows realisation to dawn. The meaning of seemingly innocuous scenes becomes rapidly and devastatingly understood.
The Florida Project might not be what you would exactly call heartwarming, but it does have a lot of heart, as well as a periodic gut punch to make sure you’re invested. Combined with its strong characterisation and emotional ups and downs, it makes for a compelling and thoroughly absorbing viewing experience. One of 2017’s very best.