If I’m to be completely honest, I don’t like kids. They’re really just romanticized versions of your blackout drunk friends that you don’t talk to anymore because they mooch off of your stuff and won’t shut up. I guess people’s need to project nostalgia onto others is even more powerful than I thought. Sean Baker doesn’t think so, though, and I admire that. Aside from its wildly out-of-place final 30 seconds that bring the experience down a whole notch, The Florida Project is some of the most realistic, heartbreakingly true and affirming filmmaking that only can be achieved by a filmmaker with the utmost sympathy for their characters. It’s often funny and sad at the same time, because in these people’s lives on the fringes of society, opposing emotions coexist at all times like a crayon-drawn yin-yang.
In what could also operate as a spiritual prequel to last year’s American Honey, the film follows Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) a six-year-old living with her emotionally abusive and neglectful mother Haley (Bria Vinaite) at a motel called the Magic Castle, so purple that it almost oozes more royalty than Buckingham Palace. Unaware of the low conditions in which she lives, Moonee spends her summer break with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who are also long-term motel residents with their respective parents. Certified hell-raisers, they spit on people’s cars, yell at adults, cause trouble for motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and wander around aimlessly with some pretty candid consequences at times, but they’re really taking in the world around them more than anything else.
Ethnographic for virtually its entire runtime, its music is diegetic and its performances largely come from non-actors. These are people who live just outside of Disney World, the seemingly sourceless sounds around them almost functioning as a cruel reminder of their proximity to the happiest place on earth. Anything that exists right outside of paradise is going to be a dumpster fire of banality in comparison. However, Baker stages his scenes in subtly cinematic ways, often shooting with slight fisheye lenses and playing off of very shallow depths of field. The realism of America is what grants it its mysticism, and when you’re a child, it’s all the same.
The humanism on display here is some of the finest since—to fall back on a previous comparison—American Honey, with Baker’s admiration of the protagonist as well as the patience for her mother feeling at once objective and from one person’s eye. The performances wrung out of his cast are largely brilliant; Prince not only gives one of the best performances of the year, but also one of the best child performances in recent memory. The actors aren’t asked to mine emotion out of more conventional drama because Baker knows that the implications and causality are what really matter. Life isn’t so much about moments in time as it is about what follows them.
The Florida Project is essentially a perfect movie until its final 30 seconds, which I dare to call a bad ending. Going against everything that Baker and his actors had worked so painstakingly to achieve, it’s a betrayal of what The Florida Project is tonally, visually, and aurally, which even makes it feel different thematically, despite the fact that it isn’t. What comes before this maraschino cherry on top of an ending is beautiful, though, and that beauty is hard to come by elsewhere. If watching the fireworks from a distance is the only option, that’s fine. The darkness makes them look brighter anyways.
The Florida Project is the truest film I’ve seen all year. It’s funny and sweet but has the power to devastate in the way that only stories about children can. I’m certain that I won’t be the only one who places it on their list of 2017’s best.
Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe) manages the Magic Castle Hotel, where many of the tenants rent rooms because they cannot afford a proper home. He shows particular concern for Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is often left to her own devices while her mother scrambles to make ends meet.
The plot isn’t obvious. Since little Moonee only catches bits and pieces of the conversations around her, you have to figure out what the adults are discussing on your own. What can seem comical, or irrelevant at first will suddenly click 15 minutes later. None of it is spoon-fed and therefore none of it feels conventional, clichéd or predictable.
The Florida Project doesn’t feel like a movie at all, more like a documentary. It’s particularly impressive considering the number of child actors featured, all of which deliver performances so good they feel like veterans. These are children as they are in real life: sweet and precious one moment, and then conniving, destructive, and hell-raising the next. When you hear the little brats curse at the adults who ask them what they’re doing, you laugh because you just can’t believe what’s happening on screen, but then you start wondering. What will their futures be like? There are so many mixed emotions here that I felt as if giant hands had reached out from the screen and started peeling until only pure emotion remained.
There are so many aspects that, on their own, would make The Florida Project worth seeing, like Willem Dafoe. There’s so much to his character, how he genuinely cares about the tenants but is also exasperated. This is a story about poverty, but a complicated poverty that’s unique to here and now. When Halley makes money, it’s in amounts that allow her to overindulge. There’s this illusion of control that’s dangerous. You don’t know what’s coming next and it’s made even more emotional by the film’s setting. Everywhere you look it’s tourist attractions, gift shops, fireworks, and excess. You understand why she’s tempted and why she strays so often.
It took me a while to wrap my mind around the unconventional ending of The Florida Project. To me, it says “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a simple fairytale solution to this epidemic?” This picture moved me, it got me thinking, laughing and all the while I was amazed by the performances. The Florida Project lingers in your mind long after it’s done. (Theatrical version on the big screen, November 5, 2017)