Film Review – The Florida Project
The Florida Project
The folly of youth is both a license for freedom and a litany of restrictions. Boundaries are pushed to learn where they exist. In effect, the experiential learning of one’s place in the world. Youth, in all its precariousness, is probably as reflexive as we during development ever get. Our society though has collectively set up systems of ambition, goals to achieve that signify a person’s place as a stepping stone to other goals. A good job, a place to live, and a trip to Disney World now and then. With his latest, The Florida Project, filmmaker Sean Baker gleams a story of living just outside the fence of status quo ambition.
Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) is six years old and living with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a pastel-purple, Orlando motel called the Magic Castle. Most of Mooney’s time is spent unsupervised, roaming the hotel and nearby shopping areas. Set in the Kissimmee, Orlando area of Florida, and situated on the far east end of Highway 192, just outside the boundaries of Disney World, The Magic Castle in all its glorious, gaudiness isn’t alone. Strip malls, replete with guns and liquor, and low rate hotels line the highway all the way into the happiest place on earth. Here Mooney and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) take over the hotel office, pester people in the laundry room and spit on cars.
It’s during an incident of car spitting that Mooney and Scooty meet a new friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Jancey’s mom forces Mooney to clean up the pelted car, but Mooney, in all her precociousness and magnetic charm soon has Jancey helping them. No sooner do they have the job done and they’re all friends. When Mooney isn’t being outright destructive, she’s spending time with the Magic Castle’s building manager, Bobby (Willem Defoe), pestering him and otherwise causing him trouble. However, Bobby presents a patience towards Mooney that is both indicative of Bobby as a character and Mooney’s situation.
Mooney’s mother Halley is young and undisciplined. She talks with a Floridian drawl and broken, lazy slang. Her demeanor oozes contempt and her behavior dictates a child not wanting to grow up. Halley’s love towards Mooney is unquestionable. They spend their time together playing, watching tv and roaming the outskirts of Orlando, trying to sell hocked goods, such as perfume, to tourists. It’s apparent Halley considers Mooney more a friend though than a daughter.
Cinematographer Alexis Zabe shoots the movie low to the ground, keeping our view mostly in sync with Mooney’s. It is a gimmick, but coupled with a Neo-Realist style of cinéma vérité and long takes, we spend practically all our time with Mooney. For the most part, precocious children are obnoxious, annoying and usually just pandering to a certain esthetic of cuteness that betrays honesty. Prince’s performance as Mooney is certainly portions of that, however Baker’s sense of direction grounds a lot of it with a depressingly tragic tale of life on the fringe of the American Dream. The upside to that is the movie rarely feels as tragic as what its presenting is and Mooney is thoroughly captivating to watch.
Halley’s lifestyle calls into question her parental ethics, but it’s also seeped in a knowledge of poverty that displays a cycle of stagnation and helplessness. While Halley and Mooney’s lifestyle seems undesirable, Halley shows little to no ambition to change it, which appears to stem from the cycle itself. We’re never told of Halley’s upbringing but we get an immediate sense it looked awfully similar. Most of the inhabitants we meet in the hotels littering the causeway into the Enchanted Kingdom are living in these places long-term.
Bobby runs the Magic Castle like it’s his own personal project to save the world. Navigating between the hotel’s owner, who regulates against long-term dwelling, and its residents who seek it, Bobby runs deals with other hotels and takes a personal interest in the people he’s helping. Defoe gives one of his most subdued and empathetic performances and brings to Bobby a real sense of fractured weight; a knowing that there’s only so much he can do despite it all.
To Baker’s credit, telling a story about poverty on the edge of Disney World, one of the most sought-after vacation destinations and symbols of American decadence in recreation, doesn’t come off like poverty porn. Baker is less interested in the conditions of poverty as something to point at and more interested in a story of people living on the edge of ambition. Disney looms in the background of everything. The promise it brings is always there, like a continual taunt that eventually becomes something you start to ignore. An unobtainable world in view, just out of reach. The Florida Project is one of the year’s most endearing films.