By Joe Fritts
Growing up in Ohio, Florida was 1,900 miles away, but still all around me. We vacationed there, and only there. When I was first striking out on my own, I, like my father before me, spent eight months living in the Sunshine State. While he was there, my father lived in a motel in Daytona Beach called the Sea Scape Inn, and I worked at the Motel 6 on Cocoa Beach. Florida is a hot, sunshine-y place, but it has a strange sadness hanging over it. It’s hard to describe the sadness, it isn’t quite seedy, but it certainly isn’t wholesome. The Florida Project, the latest from director Sean Baker (Tangerine), captures that darkness almost perfectly.
First, The Florida Project is a story about childhood. It’s about friendships and the wonder of the little adventures that only children find exciting. The film revolves around the story of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, in a brilliant debut), a seven-year-old living with her mother in room 323 at the Magic Castle Inn & Suites, a budget motel along a stretch of other one-star motels near Walt Disney World in Kissimmee, Florida. This particular end of US Route 192 on which the Magic Castle sits is filled with the usual tourist traps and cheap souvenir galleries. Moonee and her friends from the motel wreak havoc upon other guests, unsuspecting tourists, and the motel manager, Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe). The joy that comes from their simple childishness just rushes through you.
Second, The Florida Project is a punk rock movie. The children absolutely torment a woman staying at the Futureland, cussing at her and flipping the bird. They laugh at one of the other residents of the Magic Castle who regularly sunbathes topless, and they intentionally destroy some abandoned condos nearby. In one scene, Moonee’s friend, Scooty, throws a rock at a mirror and it shatters, to the audience’s delight. You find yourself watching these kids do mildly despicable things that if you ever caught kids (not just your own, any kids) doing this stuff, you’d want to beat the tar out of them. Instead, you laugh, and you smile and you want to see more.
Of course, all of this is Baker’s magic at work. Selfish people in desperate situations doing terrible things, and all of it is endearing. You root for these people, and you see a bit of yourself in them, maybe even see a lot of them in you, if you just had the nerve. Baker turned the spotlight on Hollywood’s transgender sex workers in Tangerine, and in The Florida Project, we get a look into the lives of the “hidden homeless”, people who have found themselves unable to make ends meet entirely, but have found a way to bridge those two ends so that they don’t end up living on the streets or in their cars.
The story isn’t all joyful adventure. Naturally, someone has to keep the lights on. Moonee’s young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggles to keep her small family together. She is frequently late on her rent, and often gets into fights with Bobby about her late payments. She does odd jobs to make money and she gets free food from her friend who works at a diner up the street. Eventually, the friendship dissolves, cutting off the food supply, and Moonee loses a friend. Things spiral downward and explode to an exciting ending. It is enrapturing.
Baker has created a multifaceted story with the setting as a major player. Prince and Vinaite are superb actresses, and they bring the roles to life with their nihilism and underlying sadness. Willem Dafoe is wonderfully grouchy, tender, and in one scene, as he dismisses a wanderer with sinister motives, paternally protective. Every character leaves you wanting more in the best way imaginable. The Florida Project has a clear vision of Florida’s dark side, with a cheerful outlook. Not only is it Baker’s best so far, it’s probably one of the best of the year.
Flagrantly Rated: ***** (5 out of 5 Stars)