by Philip Price
There is a sense of un-education that comes with viewing “The Florida Project.” It seems as if director Sean Baker (who broke out with 2015's “Tangerine,” but has three prior features to his credit) is intent on showing audiences that the magic of the cinema can exist without the typical three act structure that Hollywood films have conditioned audiences to expect and it's not that other films haven't done the same thing or attempted to prove as much, but this seems a point of real effort and focus on the part of “The Florida Project.” That isn't to say the picture becomes sidetracked or caught up in this endeavor, but rather that it makes for an interesting take when going into the film. This won't even necessarily hinder expectations, but it is a facet of the film that is to be observed in terms of craft as the film slyly deconstructs our expectation of what a movie is supposed to be by showing that such a product can still be engaging and entertaining while not necessarily delivering an outright objective for our protagonist to accomplish by the time the hour and 45-minute mark hits. Rather, “The Florida Project” is a beautiful rendering of childhood on the fringes with the central subjects not necessarily being aware of their surroundings or situations, but more it addresses how the innocence of childhood tends to take away any association of status and instead replaces it with the simplicity of making the most of what one must work with. In this way, “The Florida Project” accomplishes the difficult feat of being both incredibly light and fun in the way it elicits smiles from the audience as we witness the preciousness of youth while being simultaneously just as heartbreaking when it comes to the realization of the reality these people are living. It is a testament to innocence in many ways as the film exercises this abandonment of structure by chronicling the adventures of three six to seven-year old's during the summer months as they live just outside Orlando and in the shadow of Disney World-the happiest place on earth. It abandons structure because these children know nothing of such a thing in their lives while what comes to pass is necessary, undoubtedly for the best, but also incredibly emotional because of the nearly two-hour journey we've just experienced with these characters. It's a chronicling of that transition from innocence to experience in many ways, but this isn't the focus of the film and neither is the backdrop of this poverty-stricken community, but rather it is the wonder and hope that makes childhood universal and, in turn, “The Florida Project” so affecting.
It's clear from the outset, and I mean from the first frame of the film, that “The Florida Project” is not your typical fare in terms of dramatic movie-making, but instead this serious-minded, albeit bright colored film is more a comedy than anything else. That opening shot of our young protagonist, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), sitting against a lilac wall with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) as Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" blares from the soundtrack makes it instantly memorable. It also instantly sets the tone for the kind of inherently free-wheeling attitude both the movie and its young main characters exhibit. Moonee and her friends run free through the back ditches and grassy islands between the budget motel, The Magic Castle, where Moonee and Scooty live and the similarly run down complex where Dicky lives. They are bored and must entertain themselves in the months when they aren't occupied by school while their parents are forced to figure out how to both look after their children while coming up with enough money to keep their regular motel rooms week to week. Moonee's mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is a child herself and someone who can't seem to hold a steady job. Whether this is due to the tattoo's that plague every open section of her body, the multiple piercings on her face, or little more than her general bad attitude and problem with authority the fact of the matter is there's no ambition to do otherwise. While Halley is by no means a good mother and possibly the worst kind of role model for a young woman the performance of Vinaite and her ability to make Halley both this road that obviously holds nothing but bad things and the same lack of opportunity for her daughter while also presenting moments of real adoration for her daughter that places a firm belief in the viewer that she loves her daughter does not go unnoticed. And Moonee loves her mom. There is never any question in this as the two never engage in a single argument, but instead they exist on this wavelength where no matter what the other does there is an unspoken understanding that this is simply how life works for them. Moonee knows nothing else and thus has no reason to imagine anything beyond these endless summer days where she and her friends run around causing trouble, swindling strangers for ice cream money, spitting on car windows, and then coming back to The Magic Castle where Scooty's fast-food working mom provides them dinner. The movie navigates these potentially endless waters to individual microcosms of the day to day quality of life for this subset of the population that aren't technically homeless, but are maybe more devastating for being so as they are a group hidden from the public view; a group not living paycheck to paycheck, but day to day with no idea what tomorrow might hold.
It is in Baker's ability as a director to essentially string these disparate vignettes into a cohesive whole that “The Florida Project” finds its thriving heartbeat. This lack of order, but ultimate unity is due to the lack of any real driving plot devices, but such freedom allows for Baker and fellow screenwriting partner Chris Bergoch to explore as many aspects of these people's lives as they so desire. First and foremost are the children and their day to day. We meet Moonee as mentioned in the previous paragraph, but come to be aware of the fact rather quickly that she's not the sweet, well-rounded, or polite little girl the movies would have you believe most little girls are. Rather, we see that Moonee is something of a troublemaker. This isn't surprising given what seems to be the nature of the family she was born into while a main idea of the film deals in this population being products of their environment to which they grow comfortable in and only breed more individuals nurtured by the same environment. Baker is also keen not to ask how we might solve this epidemic nor does he judge his characters in any way with his filmmaking, but rather he allows them to breathe; simply observing them. In one of Moonee's first acts in the film she, along with Scooty and Dicky, vandalize a car that belongs to Jancey (Valeria Cotto) who has just moved into the same complex as Dickey, the Futureland Inn, with her grandmother who is acting as her mother to both herself and her little sister. What at first is a source of conflict and resentment between Jancey's grandmother and Moonee's group of hooligans (affectionately referred to as "the kids from the purple place") is the beginning of a rather special friendship between Prince's Moonee and Cotto's Jancey, especially after Dickey moves away and drama that ignites between Halley and Scooty's mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), forces Scooty and Moonee apart. It is in this friendship that Baker finds his emotional throughline. It may seem a given that Baker would invest the biggest emotional arc in the core relationship of Moonee and her mother, but he doesn't go this route as that is a relationship that is already established and understood when the film begins. Instead, “The Florida Project” tracks the relationship of Moonee and Jancey in a way where it is key we see Moonee as the leader of her own ragtag bunch of mischiefs and that she is this unbreakable and bold persona that sustains as she assists her mom in buying perfume at wholesale prices in order to re-sell them to unsuspecting tourists at "discount prices", or when she and her friends break into condemned houses and experiment with lighters, to the little things such as disobeying motel manager and maintenance man Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who inadvertently becomes a kind of father figure to all the lost children that end up finding their way to and making The Magic Castle something of a safe haven. This is all critical because, despite Baker's aversion to standard structure, the movie does eventually reach a climax in the building inevitability's evidenced by the mounting acts of desperation from Halley that creates one of if not the most heart-wrenching moments in cinema this year when we see that facade Moonee has vigilantly carried throughout the movie finally crumble. It's just a shame this moment of raw emotion and pure, honest confusion is followed by one of the most visually ugly and abrupt endings of the year as well.
It is in these, what feels like, largely improvised performances that “The Florida Project” really thrives. Prince is especially charming in her lead role that is meant to allow the audience a trip back in time to when we too were children and there was no need to be aware of or care how much you had or didn't, but rather the chance to explore this enchanted world you created for yourself out of the familiarity of it all-a place where each day was truly a new adventure. Prince and Cotto capture this in their genuinely funny and equally precious interactions. The fleeting innocence of Moonee is then juxtaposed with the harsh reality of what we know Halley is facing. Seeing both perspectives proves insightful enough that the audience grasps what Baker is looking to discuss while most importantly, striking that balance between what he clearly wants the film to feel like and what he hopes viewers take away from the experience. “The Florida Project,” as said earlier, is largely a comedy, but that doesn't automatically mean it carries no real dramatic weight. This high-wire act of tone and being able to sell, but do so in an understated manner, what the film is hoping to preach as the line separating these contrasting world views begins to fade as Moonee is forced to mature and comprehend faster than she might have under different circumstances. Vinaite is equally as impressive as a first-time actor as Halley is a source of both great frustration and deep sympathy. One can't help but to wonder what circumstances in her life must have brought her to this point while at the same time realizing she is undoubtedly mirroring her upbringing with Moonee who, if she continues the relationship as it is with Moonee at six up through to her pre-teen and teen years, Moonee will most certainly end up in the same boat as her mother. What these kids are witness to, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, is shaping them and as they seek out these daily thrills and inevitably find trouble along the way it's not difficult to see how such escapades would naturally progress. Dafoe is the MVP of the piece though, as his Bobby kind of holds these families together and supports them as well as he can despite having no dog in the fight other than his compassion. Finally, the other most notable character in the film is that of the city itself. This is not the Orlando of Disney's Magic Kingdom, but rather the one where all of those who work inside the park or work at the restaurants around it go after they leave work. Baker is sure to highlight all the extravagant architecture along the strip that is meant to entice visitors who are looking for vacation wear, but not looking to spend Disney prices. These bright and sometimes unintentionally frightening buildings only add to the idea and feeling that where Moonee and her friends exist is in this kind of sun-drenched Neverland. If only childhood, especially those of the ones we see depicted here, were in fact eternal-the world might be a brighter place for more of us, for much longer.