THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Mela Murder, Caleb Landry Jones, Aiden Malik, Josie Olivo, Macon Blair, Sandy Kane
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 10/6/17 (limited); 10/13/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 12, 2017
Children will play. They will play through, in, and with almost everything, as well as with just about anyone. Director Sean Baker understands this completely. His The Florida Project, a truly great film, is mostly the story of a group of kids—old enough for school but not old enough to be worried about it or to hate going there—as they go through their daily lives over the course of one summer in Orlando, Florida.
Most of their time is spent in play, secluding themselves in their familiar places and seeking out new ones, where they can explore, imagine, and cause a little mischief—or a lot of it. They live in this city, where the streets are named after fairy tale characters. Most people only visit the city, given that it's the home of a few massive theme parks. Most of those people ignore the rest of the place, booking rooms in resorts and high-end hotels.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her friends, and all of their families live in the less-appealing hotels. The rooms are cheap—cheaper by the month. The management leaves you alone, unless you're overtly breaking one of the hotel's rules. Everyone knows everyone enough to great each other, go out on the town if money allows, and, otherwise, stay out of each other's way.
Kids are different from adults, though, and we see that in the film's introductory scenes, as Moonee and a pair of her pals visit a neighboring hotel. They live in a place with "magic" in the name. The entire building is painted in an objectively garish, pastel purple. Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe let us know that the film isn't coming from a perspective that would find the paintjob to be a bit much, though. The lighting of the hotel is bright and rich, with the sun-drenched surfaces of the building's walls reflecting upon the kids' faces in a lavender glow.
The kids believe the name of the hotel, even if they don't know what it's called. To them, it's the "Purple Place." For them, it's home.
Moonee, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Dicky (Aiden Malik) have their routines—hiding under the stairwell outside the hotel's main office, impatiently waiting for each other so that they can go play, and calling out to Dicky, who lives in a different hotel down the street, as he approaches, as if the act of yelling his name repeatedly will somehow make him run faster. On this particular day, they've decided to test out their spitting abilities. From the second-floor, outdoor walkway of Dicky's hotel, they spit on a car.
The woman who owns it gets the manager of the Purple Place involved. He's Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and his feelings about the kids seem more complicated than they actually are. He likes them. He's annoyed by them at times, yes, and the irritation is definitely earned at time, such as when Moonee and her pals shut off the power to the entire hotel. Since the film is seen from the perspective of the kids, that aspect of his character is heightened. The impact of Dafoe's performance is how he gradually and subtly reveals that, in reality, he's as much the kids' protector as he is a villain in their eyes. That quality is solidified in a prolonged sequence in which Bobby deftly handles an out-of-towner who's getting too close to a group of kids on hotel property.
Because of the spitting-on-the-car incident, Moonee gets a new friend, which is good, since Dicky ends up grounded for his part in the game. The way that new friendship begins with Jancey (Valeria Cott), the granddaughter of the car's owner, is so simple, so obvious, and so childishly logical that one has to wonder: How much of Baker and Chris Bergoch's screenplay was established on the page, and how many of the interactions here were improvised by the film's young cast? Moonee and her friends make a game of cleaning the car, and seeing that Jancey is interested in the game, Moonee asks for help. Since Jancey knows that you're supposed to help someone who asks for it, she does. At that point, they're the best of friends.
The story is split between Moonee's playtime and her relationship with her mother Halley (an incredibly natural Bria Vinaite), who's between jobs, after refusing to give some backroom attention to the clientele of the club where she used to dance. Now she's scrambling and hustling to pay the rent, selling off-brand perfume outside the fancier hotels with Moonee in tow (The film's vérité style is most apparent in these scenes, in which it seems as if Baker, keeping the camera at a distance, simply had the two actors approach unsuspecting strangers). As money gets tighter and Bobby starts suggesting that she might be "evicted" (No one can maintain residence at the hotel, meaning there's a monthly scramble to get "guests" into another place for a night), Halley starts another gig to make some cash.
All of this is objectively depressing and increasingly lacking in hope, but again, Baker isn't working on an objective level. This is a view of this world—of poverty and uncertainty and people living on the fringes of society—from the eyes of a child. Baker isn't pandering with this vision. The film doesn't sugarcoat what's happening, simply because children are at the center of the story, but most of the story's gloomier developments are suggested—such as the realization of what Halley does during her daughter's regular nightly bath, how the mother has tried to hide it from her daughter as a game of sorts, and how Moonee, even with the truth of it in front of her, doesn't understand.
Baker has made a surprisingly joyous film from this despairing situation, but even more difficult, he has done so without obscuring the inherent bleakness of the circumstances of this life or romanticizing them. That's because it's a film about innocence. There's nothing noble about that innocence, though. Moonee and her friends don't play as a form of escape from their situation. They do so simply because that's what children do.
Prince, in her first role, is a revelation as Moonee—precocious without the trait coming across as affected and heartbreaking as her world comes down around her. Her world of innocence and play must come to an end—not only because that is the way childhood but also because there is no other way for this story to end. The final sequence of The Florida Project is wrenching, and the final minute or so of the film is certain to be divisive. Some undoubtedly will say that it goes against the story's logic, but for the rest of us, it comes as a relief. Baker, who has shown such empathy for these characters, clearly doesn't want the full weight of reality to descend. We should be grateful for that small kindness, as false as we know it to be.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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