The Florida Project (2017)
Welcome to a magical kingdom
Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World opened its Florida doors in 1971, where six themed lands — which orbit the central Cinderella Castle — promised patrons an experience of a lifetime, one where all of their childhood fantasies would come to life. As the illustrious park grew in popularity, budget motels and knock-off souvenir stores began to pop up nearby in Kissimmee in order to cater for the growing number of money-guzzling visitors and tourists. Recently, however, these now run-down establishments have found a new type of clientele: Florida’s strapped, low-income earning families, people who were affected by the subprime crash and were unable to find conventional rental accommodation in its wake.
The Florida Project is set within these broken fringes, where playfully named, candy-colored buildings (such as Magic Castle and Futureland Inn) are at odds with the harsh economic realities of those living within their walls, struggling to pay the rent. Sometimes the two co-existing environments cross over; a honeymooning couple gets Magic Castle mixed up with Magic Kingdom, while Micky’s helicopters and fireworks can be seen and heard from a far.
Set over one hot summer, The Florida Project opens with Kool and the Gang’s boppy ‘Celebration,’ which alludes to the carefree world of our 6-year-old protagonist, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a young girl who resides at the three-story Magic Castle. Finding happiness in her day-to-day life, Moonee runs around the ‘wonderland’ with her pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and their new bud Jancey (Valeria Cotto), the trio doing the silly things that kids normally do. We see the lil’ rascals spit on parked cars, explore derelict housing areas, con tourists into giving them spare change, so that they can buy ice-cream from the local Twistee Treat, and shut off the motel’s power just for shits and giggles. Although Moonee and her mischievous friends can never really afford to spend a day inside Walt’s Florida Project, they’re able to find happiness and adventure in the stretch of highway just outside of the fairy-tale utopia — in their makeshift homes and their gaudy surroundings.
For those who’ve left childhood behind, however, life in the ‘kingdom’ is a bit more complicated. Moonee’s ‘punk princess’ mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is one such person, the trashy, tattooed vixen, who’s got an ‘up yours’ attitude, too lazy to get herself a decent job. Despite being rough around the edges, Halley still loves her rambunctious kid daughter and wants the best for her, even if (as a mother) she’s always falling short. Constantly finding it hard to come up with the rent (which is roundabout $35 per night), the bratty Halley makes money by scamming, lying and thieving — for instance, she sells holidaying folk discounted perfume in parking lots of fancier Orlando hotels or low-priced theme park entry-passes to cheap tourists, which she steals from sleazy men she beds for extra cash.
Quasi-episodic in nature, The Florida Project is quite hard to define, the film a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall look at the beauty of a stark, impoverished reality, one that’s akin to the 1922 Hal Roach-produced Great Depression series Our Gang. Written and directed by Sean Baker — the guy who brought us 2012’s excellent Starlet — and co-written by regular collaborator Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project presents life in the slums through the eyes of young’un Moonee, who’s portrayed by a superb Brooklynn Prince — the kind of child performer that’s so genuine, it’s easy to forget one’s watching fiction as opposed to reality. Spending a lot of time with her unfit mother, it’s easy to see why the streetwise Moonee acts the way that she does, having learned a lot about the world from the defiant hellcat who raised her.
Turning to social media platforms for casting, Baker discovered Bria Vinaite on Instagram after being drawn to her carefree, hyper attitude — traits that we see in the character of Halley. With her teal-dyed hair and tawdry exterior, the 24-year-old channels a viperous sorta energy that’s best comparable to Riley Keough’s Krystal from American Honey (2016), Vinaite breathing palpable three-dimensional life into the vivacious sexpot, who lives in Room 323 with her cheeky kid. Both a little juvenile and imprudent, the pair shares a big-sisterly kind of bond; the couple indulge at restaurants, then have burping contests after, shop for tacky plastic jewellery and give people who annoy them the finger.
Then there’s Willem Dafoe, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), who’s got a fantastic role as an empathetic hotel manager named Bobby, a guy that knows Halley’s situation all too well, probably having seen a dozen others come through with similar hardships. A gruff caretaker who’s actually got a big heart, Dafoe has never been better, his Bobby working as the guardian of Magic Castle, doing what needs to be done in and around the garish village — typing away in his poky office, regulating charity vans that show up to distribute bread, remodeling the building or acting as father figure/ law enforcer; at one point, we see him forcefully remove a likely pedophile from the grounds. With that said, Dafoe’s human performance reveals some of Bobby’s hidden scars, the caretaker constantly butting heads with Halley over lease payments, while brief interactions with his son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones) suggest a fractured marriage in the past, which possibly ended in some kind of separation.
Shot in gorgeous 35mm, Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabé, Post Tenebras Lux (2012), capture the kaleidoscopic wonder within the poverty of Route 192; it’s a world of bright Day-Glo colors, where characters walk through storybook sunsets or under arching prisms, the overall aesthetic best described as a scoop of rainbow ripple ice-cream with an unsweetened twist.
The Florida Project also feels like the perfect progression for young Baker, who made waves a couple of years back when he released the micro-budget feature Tangerine (2015), which was filmed on an iPhone 5s (with a Moondog Labs Anamorphic clip on lens) using the FiLMIC Pro app. Following a transgender sex worker living in L.A., who, after finishing a 28-day prison sentence, discovers that her boyfriend and pimp had been cheating on her, the film was hailed as a visual tour de force, showing (the world) that anyone could make a movie.
A nice leap forward for filmmaker Baker, The Florida Project proves, once again, why he’s one of the most distinctive voices working in the industry today. A bold, assured portrait of childhood and childhood’s end, one that concludes with a hefty punch to the gut, The Florida Project is bound to stay with viewers for a long while. Who knows, maybe next time I pass a place like Magic Castle, I’ll stop for a minute and pause, knowing that there may be something bleaker going on behind the façade.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Mr. Movie