Sean Baker constructs ‘The Florida Project’, one of the best films of 2017

“The Florida Project” – “Childhood means simplicity.  Look at the world with the child’s eye – it’s very beautiful.”  – Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights and education advocate

“These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in, but let’s go anyway!” – Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)

Families from all over target Orlando, Fla. as a vacation city, because of its famous theme parks, and Disney’s Magic Kingdom shines as its crown jewel.  According to a June 1, 2017 The New York Times article, 20.4 million people visited the Magic Kingdom in 2016, and although “children of all ages” enjoy the park, it is really an enchanted place for kids.

The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow – also resides in Orlando, but this is not a lush Disney attraction.  It is an extended stay hotel that sits among fast food joints and discount gift shops, and for many of its residents, they struggle to make ends meet.  Although this community accommodates temporary tenants who may arrive, pay rent for a few weeks and leave for a more permanent place, others stay – sometimes for years – as an unending alternative to living on the street.

Director Sean Baker and screenwriter Chris Bergoch – who worked together on “Tangerine” (2015) and “Starlet” (2012) – explored the budget hotel concept and actually won a grant to research and visit them.  With “The Florida Project”, they are raising awareness of budget hotel communities on the big screen.

The film stars 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live at The Magic Castle.  Halley – an early 20-something who sports large tattoos and cops an attitude against authority – occasionally scrapes together an income by selling perfume in parking lots of nearby resorts.  Sometimes she gathers enough cash to cover the weekly rent – for their hotel room with a queen size bed that fills up most of the space –  but other weeks, she needs to improvise.   Feeding Moonee an irregular diet of pizza and free waffles (courtesy of her friend, Ashley (Mela Murder)), this mother and daughter are not living in 2017 America, but existing.

Well, they are existing, but when Moonee is left on her own, which is very, very often, she becomes an explorer, an explorer of a childlike interpretation of her world as a vast playground, as the meaning of Satyarthi’s aforementioned quote dances across the big screen.  Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) trek all over the concrete, suburban sprawl (and an occasional grassy field), as Baker strategically places his camera, opens up the lens and captures the artificial, confectionary beauty that these kids notice, but adults ignore, while speeding to work or running errands on Route 192.

In one particularly effective sequence, the three kiddos take little steps across large, expansive parking lots towards their ice cream haven, as they walk by Orange World’s giant half-orange roof and a 30-foot magician’s face sitting on top of a business simply named Gift Shop.  Baker layers these smile-inducing visuals with the youngsters’ childlike banter and their various negotiations, as Moonee, Scooty and Jancey converse like the “South Park” kids, but with much less cursing, more harmless sass and added intentions of satisfying their collective id.  Jancey is the least audacious, while Moonee leads the charge, whether its digesting a Costco-sized jar of jelly and a half loaf of bread or visiting a group of nearby cows for an ad hoc safari trip.

Modern-day, suburban parents – who routinely schedule playdates – could be aghast by the lack of daily supervision, but 30-somethings, 40-somethings and baby boomers might reminisce when their parents said at 9am on a Saturday, “Go play outside and be home for dinner.”

Fortunately, The Magic Castle’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), also unofficially works as a caretaker, watching Moonee and the other kids who live there, as they run around the property.  Although Halley truly loves Moonee, she does make terrible choices as a parent.  Bobby fits into Baker and Bergoch’s narrative as an effective and respected anchor versus the carefree decisions emanating from Halley and Moonee.  Through a couple understated, revelatory moments, we learn that Bobby has not endured 50+ years of an easy life, and in small, daily ways he almost seems to be subtly repairing past mistakes by caring about and/or expressing empathy for his tenants.

In a recent interview, Dafoe said, “(‘The Florida Project’) is one of those films that makes you look at your relationship to other people and what your responsibility is, and the quality of your life is going to be colored by how you treat other people…..You’ll be a more content person when you look at the person across from you and know that you got to help each other.”

Dafoe’s comforting and principled performance should earn him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and he, Prince and Vinaite all deliver authentic work here.  Baker shot his film at a real budget hotel (yes, named The Magic Castle), and the three leads seamlessly fall into their roles as a manager and two residents, as if they have worked/lived there for years.  Due to her age, Prince has one previous film credit on her resume, and “The Florida Project” is Vinaite’s first movie.  In fact, in a stroke of genuine luck and out of the box thinking, Baker found Vinaite on Instagram.

While Moonee offers adorable, aw, shucks scenes and oodles of kid humor, Vinaite’s Halley carries the hardship of adulthood, as if an 800 lb. gorilla is throwing its dead weight on her back.  This pressure and a lifetime of heartache surrounded by poor role models have resulted in Halley embracing caustic slices of arrested development and horrible judgment, and Baker and Vinaite fully display the unpleasant, and sometimes heartbreaking choices that this mother makes.

Baker spoke with the Phoenix Film Festival, and he said that his mixture of tones is deliberate.

“The whole film (contained many) contradictions, a lot of clashing with adult and childlike content. The whole movie is that,” Baker said.

He added, “I think the whole film is about a balance between the two worlds, because it’s about two worlds.  It’s a whole other world right outside the Magic Kingdom, so I am always trying to have a clash.”

This clash alternates between entertaining (although mischievous) kid humor and acidic realities of poverty, so “The Florida Project” throws its audience on a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, and sometimes, through the use of music or when Moonee and Halley are paired up on a perfume-selling spree, these contrasting themes reach the screen simultaneously.

For millions and millions of people in this country, a painful cycle of poverty regularly snares them on a cruel merry-go-round, but – thankfully – through a child’s eyes, any present environment can be transformed into a playground.  Baker and Moonee found beauty at The Magic Castle and all along Route 192, but will these moments of wide-eyed adventure last for these kids?  Perhaps, but kids grow up.

As poet and playwright Seamus Heaney said, “I think childhood is, generally speaking, a preparation for disappointment.”

⭐⭐⭐⭐   out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits:  A24;  Trailer credits:  A24

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