The buzz on The Florida Project is nearly deafening. This feature film by Tangerine director Sean Baker is the story of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Price) and her summer escapades and adventures navigating childhood as one of the hidden homeless. She lives in Orlando with her mother Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite, who the director discovered on Instagram) in the looming shadow of one of the “happiest places on Earth”, Disney World. It’s not so much a story with an arc, as it is a snapshot of a child’s relationship with her surroundings, her eternal optimism, and the influence, or lack thereof, of her jobless mom. It all takes place in the rundown motel where Halley pays by the day to live, scraping together the money to stay there any way she can. Bobby, the maintenance man, tries to keep an eye on Moonee and the other kids living at the motel, especially when it’s clear no one else is paying attention.
Scenes in this movie are often cringe-worthy, and a significant portion of it is hard to watch. There are multiple scenes where Moonee is running around unsupervised, spitting on cars, throwing rocks, begging strangers for ice cream money, and setting fires. Halley drags Moonee along while she tries to resell discount perfume to passersby at motel entrances. There are numerous sketchy comings and goings with men frequenting their room throughout the day and night. In all of this, though, Halley does try to keep her daughter’s innocence, such as she can.
Supporting character Bobby is played by Willem Dafoe, who is given top billing. It’s understandable, given he is the only recognizable actor in the film. His role is an important one in the story, and his character is important to the Moonee’s continued safety, tenuous though it may be. He represents the people straddling the world of the poor and those finding a way to get a bit beyond it, who both call on the people around them to take responsibility for themselves, and make good choices, having compassion for them whether they do so or not.
“Welcome to a magical kingdom”, says the tagline on the movie poster. The point of the film is to highlight and document through a feature film the many people who live in this country who are barely able to get from day to day. It’s especially hard-hitting when the story is juxtaposed with one of the most recognizable representations of the American dream. Disney World advertises the sort of carefree joy Halley no longer expects, and Moonee must create however she can.
What sets this film apart is that director Baker does a great job of presenting these characters in an unjaundiced, authentic way. There’s absolutely no sugarcoating here, even when a part of you wishes he might pull back from reality even just a bit. Moonee may sometimes come off as a brat, and Halley as an incredibly irresponsible mother, but they are both doing the best with what they have. Even with all her questionable choices, it’s hard to know what else Halley could do under the circumstance, and her love for her daughter is never in question.
Though it’s hard to witness a child attempting to raise herself, and a young woman trapped in poverty, The Florida Project is still the sort of movie that should be made. What a good thing it is at the hands of Sean Baker, who is someone fearless enough to represent a segment of our country, and do so in all its tainted glory.