Early in The Florida Project, after a rambunctious trio of local kids stage a contest to see who can spit the biggest wad onto a car windshield from a second-floor motel balcony, the owner of the car in question and the mother of one of the children make conversation. It starts hostile, but before long, they’re wandering together, the car’s owner mentioning of two of the kids that “they’re not mine. Well, they’re mine now.” In the closed ecosystem of borderline-homeless people living for 29 days at a time in motels along Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Florida, that’s pretty much how it works. The kids either belong to one of the parents who’ve ended up there, or they became the responsibility of someone else when their parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) look out for them. And they only stay for 29 days, because at 30 days you establish residency. So you have to sleep somewhere else for a night.
But much of The Florida Project isn’t about such adult concerns, at least until it has to be. It’s about a sweltering summer along that highway strip of gun shops, knockoff Disney merchandise stores, and the aforementioned motels, many of which haven’t been updated since the 1950s, when local building owners looked to milk every last bit of tourist traffic they possibly could. And it’s about the children who grow up in these motels, who find ways to make their own fun as their parents struggle to make the $35 a night required for them to keep a roof over their heads, and those of their kids. Sean Baker‘s follow-up to Tangerine takes a similarly lived-in approach to its environment, but the environment has changed. The Magic Kingdom might just be a few miles down the road, but Disney World might as well be as distant as the moon for all the proximity and access felt throughout Baker’s empathetic, warmhearted slice of neo-realism. But none of the film’s inhabitants need Disney World, and its presence is only made clear through a handful of street signs and a pair of scenes late in the proceedings. They just need each other.
At the Magic Castle, a three-floor motel bathed in a lustrously garish light purple, the building manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) trudges through his daily appointed rounds. Chief among them is the endless wrangling of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), best friends and eternal troublemakers. Since Moonee’s mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) passes most of her days smoking blunts in their room and attempting to find more lucrative work, it’s up to Moonee and Scooty to entertain themselves. So they wander the streets of Kissimmee, and the other motels, and sometimes they pick up a friend like Jancey (Valeria Cotto) along the way. They hustle for ice cream money to beat the heat, they stomp through the remains of burned-out local apartments with zero knowledge of the flophouses they’ve become, they play around with an iPad in one of their parents’ hotel rooms. Whatever they can find, really. It’s beautiful outside, and every day offers new and endless possibilities.
(Interview: Find Your Kingdom: A Conversation with Sean Baker)
For the adults, Kissimmee is less of a paradise. The kids fetch meals from a neighbor and Waffle House employee to feed themselves and their parents. Halley slings bootleg perfume in the parking lots of Disney motels to make rent. Bobby has to contend with everything from errant long-legged birds to irate tenants to stray pedophiles to the occasional fights and illegal trades operating out of the Magic Castle’s rooms. Baker situates these woes against the realities of his chosen Florida region; the Magic Castle is a real-life motel, one of many of its ilk along Highway 192, where families attempt to stay off the streets by way of cheap per-night rents. This is a place of magic for the kids, but it’s also one of perpetual strife for the parents who have to maintain their standard of living until the dream of something better is realized.
But to reiterate, for all of the harsh truths that present themselves throughout The Florida Project, it’s hardly an extended wallow in the anguish of the embattled. Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch have made a film that acknowledges pain without succumbing to it, a powerful piece of storytelling made all the more so by how unassuming it is. The film is built from small moments, cut by a bit of arson here and some damning security footage there, and it’s a testament to how genuinely special Baker’s film is that it never once gives itself over to the cloying sentiment of so many other narratives about poverty. Halley and Moonee may not have ideal lives (at one point, Moonee complains about eating cheese pizza again, and her mother observes that “pepperoni costs money”), but they find their light in the smallest moments. Jancey is thrown a birthday party, with a candle in a cupcake, underneath the nearby mega-park’s fireworks. Moonee and Halley enjoy lunch while watching choppers take off from a nearby heliport. Moonee and Scooty play hide-and-seek in Bobby’s office, and test his patience by tauntingly devouring ice cream in the motel’s lobby. As a makeshift family of sorts, they go swimming and dance on the bed and do so many other things that stories of financial downturn typically eschew in favor of portentious, outsider’s-view head-patting.
The film exudes pure humanity in every frame, in all of its messiness and splendor and tragedy, and much of that raw emotion is owed to the performances. As a director who primarily works with first-timers, Baker continues that motif here aside from Dafoe, who does remarkable work as a kind, everyday man attempting to do right by those in his charge while also keeping himself afloat. (A pair of other familiar indie-movie faces also pop up for a scene or two each, but they’re hardly a distraction.) Vinaite gives a commanding debut performance as a walking rebuke to so many ugly cultural stereotypes about the “bad mom”; she may be a hellion, and she may not meet broader standards of what a parent is supposed to offer to their children, but it’s a performance that exudes utter pride and affection at every moment, even if those emotions sometimes curdle into arrogance and irresponsibility. Halley may work herself ragged to look out for her daughter, but she’s hardly a model parent. Yet in Baker’s estimation, there’s no such thing. There are just parents who look out for their kids, and those who don’t. But the true first-time revelation is found in Prince, who’s tasked with carrying much of the film’s 115 minutes as Moonee and does so without the affectations of so many child performers. One moment late in the film, when the realities of her life finally descend on her to an unavoidable extent, sees Alexis Zabe‘s camera train on Prince, as she works through the full spectrum of adult emotions for the first time within seconds. It’s an astounding piece of performance for any actor, let alone a young discovery.
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Zabe’s work elsewhere is worthy of its own plaudits; he and Baker frame the central strip of highway to hilarious and genuinely striking aesthetic ends alike. The Florida Project is not entirely unaware of the garish tones of the region, and Zabe finds a handful of exceptional visual punchlines in the sometimes outrageous business facades near the Magic Castle. But the condescension that a film about Florida made by a lifetime New Yorker could well have carried is hardly present, as Baker finds the beauty beneath the ostentatious veneers of central Florida, even as portions of the film satirize it in kind. This is and always has been somebody’s home, and that’s a fact the film understands well. When a rainbow arcs over the Magic Castle, it’s not meant as a moment of juxtapositional laughter. For a brief moment, this may as well be heaven to the film’s young protagonists.
As with Tangerine, and with a little bit more money at his disposal, Baker has made a film of rare emotional depth and generosity with The Florida Project. Its message is pointed, but the message also isn’t the point after a while. This is one of those rare films that simply allows you to live with people that you know you’ll miss dearly by its conclusion, and will find yourself hoping for their eventual success. Moonee and Halley and their friends and nemeses alike will go on and endure, which is perhaps the greatest gesture of optimism that this film can make, and that virtually any could. Real life encroaches on childhood sooner or later, but flashes of that gentle and naive sense of hope remain. To say that The Florida Project is one of the best films of the year would be accurate, but likewise beside the point. The point is that this is a film of rare joy, even in its more unsparing moments, and the kind of film that should be seen by anybody who loves movies.
And besides. If things get so bad that you can no longer handle them any longer, when it seems that all is lost, you’re always still free to pick up your feet and run.