So I was recently able to FINALLY watch The Florida Project, a film that is a magical, humanist view of those living on the fringes of the happiest place on earth. That fringe is an important caveat in this film, but Sean Baker doesn’t exploit the characters obvious poverty and marginalized existence. In fact, he uses this film to celebrate the fierce joy of humanity, and the fact that everyone should have their own version of a fairytale –– their own kingdom.
The lynchpin of the movie has to be the incredible talent of the films little princess, Moonee and of course her real name is Brooklynn Prince, and she is going to be a big deal mark my words. The film opens with Moonee and her best friends who also live the nomadic day-to-day life in these motels. They are three friends who obviously have to make their own entertainment, in this case it’s spitting on a car from a hotel balcony. Their sprite like mischievous nature is infectious, and emotes a resilient spirit that is the backbone of this film.
Moonee we learn, live in the Magic Castle motel with her young, wild, blue haired and heavily tattooed young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). The motel is painted in the whimsical style of the neighboring hotels in Disney World, but this is no Disney world and Baker makes that clear. Halley is reckless, haughty with a “f*ck you” attitude that she uses to hide her worries and insecurities. Baker found the first time actor Vinaite on Instagram, her tattoos are real and are just one physical example of the realness and no BS nature that she brings to Halley. Her work is effortless, her snarling, bristling act is not an act, her glances that Moonee that seem to convey intense love but also an understanding that sometimes she doesn’t do enough, are heartbreaking and insightful.
The film is set in the summertime, a time that millions of kids visit Disney World for an adventure of a lifetime, but for Moonee, Scooty (Christopher Rivera a child Baker met that was actually living at the Magic Castle) and Jancy (first time actress Valeria Cotto who Baker discovered in Target) they have to make their own magic. So, they do. From “safari” tours to some cows in a field, to turning off the power in the hotel just to see what it does, to haunting a neighboring ice cream shop in hopes that a visitor can be guilted into buying the trio one cone to share. All of their seemingly mundane, banal adventures are seen through their eyes and are full of contagious delight and wonder. Every experience is tinged with the magic of childhood.
All of these moments would seem overly sentimental or pity enduring in the hands of another filmmaker, but as shown in his critically acclaimed 2015 film –– shot on an i-phone–– Tangerine Baker is able to show the audience joy and humanity in simple moments. BTW Tangerine is currently on Netflix and is a film that explores worlds that are rarely on film, individuals who are rarely celebrated in art and people with vibrant, full lives that deserve exploring. The final scene of Tangerine is so perfect, you have to see it to appreciate the importance of representation and celebrating personal authenticity. Similarly, you don’t have to experience the life of Moonee to be able to understand the universal implications of her situation.
Baker is famous, admirably so, for favoring non-professionals and first-time actors in his films. In a move out of his comfort zone, he cast Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the gruff, weathered manager and de facto handyman and enforcer for the Magic Castle. Dafoe delivers, in my opinion, one of his career best performances. He puts on a tough exterior, but he is as nuanced and complex as any of the out of luck tenants he grows attached to, and underneath that leathered skin is a nice guy.
He frequently spats with Halley about her questionable money-making methods, her flirtation with criminal activity and the wild, unfettered nature of Moonee and her inevitable recklessness. Dafoe is so grounded in this film that you forget who he is, and that is the true perfection of his role. He disappears in this role of everyday life and fighting for happiness in this world that is so easy to forget next to the glitz and privilege that is just down the road–– yet couldn’t be further from the little world of the Magic Castle.
Undoubtedly you have already heard critics rave about the final fifteen minutes of The Florida Project. I will not spoil anything, but I will say that the hype is well deserved. The moments build, the emotions are real and Brooklynn Prince will break your heart. It culminates in an exhilarating and poignant scene at Disney World that fully reveals the necessary magic of The Florida Project.