The Florida Project (2017)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Sean Baker

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The name “Florida” conjures images of a paradise of lush greenery, coral birds, blue skies, and white-sand beaches. Its inviting motto, “The Sunshine State,” bathes the mind in a golden, cheerful glow. Who wouldn’t be happy to find themselves in such a place? Understandably then, Walt Disney Productions found Florida to be the ideal location to build Disney World, a newer, more expansive version of Disney Land, the self-dubbed “Happiest Place on Earth.” Known within Disney during its planning stages as The Florida Project, Disney World now costs hundreds of dollars for admission alone, but that doesn’t stop more than 20 million people a year from visiting. Ironically, in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, the children who play along U.S. Route 192, the main tourist strip leading to Disney World, may never pass through its magical gates. For them and their impoverished families, finding the money to pay their week-to-week rent in the resort-town version of an SRO can be an all-consuming task.

Veteran filmmaker Sean Baker, whose 2015 iPhone-lensed feature Tangerine was his breakthrough success, says that he is inspired by location. It shows. Route 192 clearly telegraphs the specifics of his main interest—the children of poverty in a playground of plenty lined with day-glo, kitschy buildings and Disney-inspired names.

Nelson Algren, the great literary chronicler of the down and out, said that junkies, hustlers, and bums have everyday lives—they just don’t look quite the same as those of the squares. Baker vividly expresses this notion in this slice-of-life film that has a story and something of an arc, but no real plot. The film is filled with moments that are “the thing itself”—a rainbow, some sandhill cranes leisurely walking in a parking lot, a birthday celebration held by the side of the road in sight of Disney’s nightly fireworks display. Baker’s characters encounter harshness, though he tends to suggest more than he shows, but particularly for the children, life is normal and full of wonder.

Our central protagonist, 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), lives in a purple motel called the Magic Castle Inn with her unemployed, heavily tattooed mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). When she is not helping her mother illegally solicit customers to buy cut-rate perfume in the parking lots of Orlando’s fancier hotels, Moonee is running around with her playmate, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and teaching a timid new friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), how to beg for money to buy ice cream and generally raise hell.

Route 192 is full of places to explore. The kids weave through overgrown lots, which Moonee insists harbor alligators, and play hide and seek among the adjacent motels. Moonee shows Jancey and Scooty a door at the Magic Castle they’re not supposed to enter and says excitedly, “Let’s go anyway!” Shortly thereafter, the entire motel loses power. Their most spectacular stunt comes when they casually vandalize an abandoned house in a failed real estate development, and eventually burn it down by lighting a pillow in the fireplace. The blaze becomes the attraction of the entire motel community, as Halley tries to convince Moonee that it’s more fun than watching the TV show to which she seems unnaturally glued.

Among the adults is a certain esprit de corps fostered by interdependence. Halley and Ashley (Meda Murder), Scooty’s mom, are besties who hang on each other like lovers; Ashley supplies Halley and Moonee with free breakfasts through the back door of the diner where she works and spots them rent money from time to time. Parenting duties are shared and occasionally taught, as when Jancey’s grandmother (Josie Olivo) insists to a disrespectful Halley that Moonee and Scooty clean off the car they have been spitting on. No one, however, seems to mind when Halley, Moonee, and Scooty happily flip off helicopter-touring visitors as they fly overhead.

Trying to hold everything together is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle’s manager. He collects the rent, handles maintenance for the aging property, and watches out for the residents. For example, Bobby sees an older man (Carl Bradfield) approach the kids playing near the motel’s roadside picnic tables and sizing him up as a pedophile, leads him away from the children, grabs his wallet, gets his name, and throws him off the property. But he also has a job to do. Although he feels compassion for his tenants, he threatens to toss them out for various infractions and nonpayment of rent. Occasionally, reluctantly, he does just that.

Baker grew up loving The Little Rascals—he dedicates the film in part to Hal Roach and Spanky McFarland—and only realized as an adult that the Rascals were poor. He hoped to capture the energy and comedy of those earlier films while underlining the precariousness of his characters’ existence. For example, one line of dialogue tells us enough to know that Halley was a stripper who was fired for not having sex with the customers; later, however, after being run off from her perfume trade, we see her taking bikini photos of herself. The implication is tragically clear and that she turns the photo session into a game by having Moonee pose, too, is as sad as it gets.

Baker said The Florida Project was five years in the making due to its need for a fairly substantial budget. He considers it kismet that Brooklynn Prince was just the right age to play his modern-day Spanky by the time he was ready to cast the film, and indeed, she has the intelligence and insouciance to hit all the right notes. Her improvisatory skills add a great deal to the film, such as when she comes up with all the ways she loves food while stuffing herself from a resort buffet. Vinaite, a first-time actor, was recruited off Instagram. Baker seems to have great instincts because she knocks it out of the park as a troubled, immature woman with an undercurrent of violence who loves her daughter but can’t make a better life for them. The pair jokes when Bobby comes to bawl out Moonee. Halley, in exaggerated sorrow, says, “I’ve failed as a mother,” and a smiling Moonee responds, “Yeah Mom, you’re a real disgrace.” This you-and-me-against-the world attitude will get a much more serious challenge later in the film. Thankfully, Baker mainly keeps drugs and alcohol off the screen, thus confounding the cliches of the world he is exploring and keeping us focused on seeing these characters as people, not problems.

Baker built up the role of Bobby after meeting a motel manager in Florida and listening to his story. Willem Dafoe is wonderful in the part, bringing enormous, understated empathy to this man while balancing the orders of his employer with the sometimes chaotic lives of his tenants. For example, his matter-of-fact confrontation with an elderly, topless sunbather (Sandy Kane) at the motel pool suggests this isn’t the first time he’s had to warn her about her appearance, though he gets around her by saying he can’t have her drinking her froo-froo cocktails at poolside.

The film was shot on 35mm by Alexis Zabe, who was responsible for the remarkable look of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) and Post Tenebras Lux (2012). Here Zabe finds a balance between haunting beauty and bright pop, and his night shooting is particularly lush. In the end, however, Baker returns to his iPhone to shoot his final scene—a mad, magical dash through The Florida Project. It’s the perfect ending to a deeply humane film.

  • Cool Bev spoke:
    23rd/09/2017 to 10:36 am

    This sounds wonderful but probably too sad for me. I feel that way about most of Florida. I was living in Tallahassee when they were making Beasts of the Southern Wild, and I still haven’t steeled myself to watch that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/09/2017 to 10:54 am

    Yep, it’s kind of a tough film, but very empathetic. Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe turned in incredible performances (yes, the director talk after my screening made it clear Brooklynn was definitely acting) that I hope will be remembered at awards time.

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