On the outskirts of Disney's Magic Kingdom, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) manages the Magic Castle motel, one of several in the area housing the poor. Single mom Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite) is struggling to afford the $35 a night room charge, helped by another resident, waitress Ashley (Mela Murder), who gives Halley's daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) bags of food from her diner's back door. Halley isn't the best parent, but her love for Moonee knows no bounds and the six year-old only sees wonder and adventure in her life in "The Florida Project."
Cowriter (with "Tangerine's" Chris Bergoch)/editor/director Sean Baker famously shot his second film, "Tangerine," on an iPhone. One might think that was a gimmick, but the film, an unconventional Christmas dramedy about two transgender prostitutes, was the real deal. Once again Baker gives voice to those living in the margins, challenging snap judgements, creating a magical yet heart breaking world.
Much to Bobby's amused irritation, Moonee and her buddy Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Ashley's son, have the run of his multi-storied motel. When the duo take turns lobbing spit from the balcony of a neighboring business onto a resident's car, Bobby deals with the complaint. Stacy (Josie Olivo) tries to prevent her granddaughter Jancey (Valeria Cotto) from aiding in the disciplinary cleanup, but the kids are having too much fun and Halley's carefree nature wears Stacy down, another connection formed. Moonee leads her new best friend on a hilarious tour of the Magic Castle, each of its residents reduced to a succinct but provocative description.
The kids' environment is one of candy colored tourist stops and open fields, but one adventure proves a bridge too far for Ashley, who snubs Halley and forbids Scooty from playing with Moonee. Cut off from their food supply, Halley's situation grows increasingly desperate, but Ashley's vengeance takes a far worse turn.
Brooklynn Prince is an irrepressible force of nature who delights even when she's cadging money from strangers for ice cream. When Bobby tells off Halley for her slack child rearing, Moonee cackles 'You're a disgrace, mom!,' her rebellious fun making disarming tension. But although the film presents mostly a child's point of view, it is Bria Vinaite who breaks our hearts with her perceptive, multi-shaded performance. The young unknown, who resembles a cross between Elizabeth Moss and a young Milla Jovovich if they had sea green colored hair, tats and piercings, gives touching inner life to the people we pass every day, those on the margins trying to earn a living selling goods illegally on the streets. Her Halley is a child herself, looking for a good time yet never ducking her child's needs. Moonee gets her joie de vivre from her mom and it is Vinaite's work that enables us to see this, especially through her continual run ins with Dafoe's Bobby. His far quieter performance runs deep with compassion, yet he's no push over, as evidenced in Bobby's handling of pedophile who stops where the kids are playing.
Bergoch came up with the story after traveling around the area and his and Baker's script is admirable in not spelling everything out for the audience. We can guess at Bobby's back story through his brief interactions with his son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones, "American Made") and the purple motel's owner, but we never learn how Halley became one of his tenants. As in "Tangerine," color plays a big role, cinematographer Alexis Zabe ("Silent Light") and production designer Stephonik Youth presenting an idealized version of Moonee's world. There are some subtle cues to adults, like the Disney Gift Outlet that marks the area's lesser economic status or Jancey's birthday celebration, held with a back view of the Magic Kingdom's fireworks display. The film ends on a fantastical note that is jarring in its change in tone, yet provocative in what it has to say.
"The Florida Project" is a humanistic work of art that lingers.
Life for six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is all a game living at the Magic Castle Inn in the shadows of Disney World. She and her tiny gang roam freely around the property and beyond, sometimes getting in trouble with the inn’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Even then, she can always find safety with her caring mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in “The Florida Project.”
Director/writer Sean Baker made a big splash with his innovative and original indie film, “Tangerine (2015),” which he shot on modified iphone cameras. The story, about a transvestite hooker looking for her boyfriend on Christmas Eve, is funny, fast paced and very entertaining. Baker takes these qualities and expands upon them with his latest slice-of-life story.
The story about a young girl and her mom (more like sisters, really), who live in a welfare motel in Orlando, is about life through the eyes of the very precocious child, Moonee. The little kid’s joie du vivre is palpable as there is nowhere, to her and her little gang of buddies, that is taboo. It is a film about the little things that are the world of a child. Halley teaches her daughter to be tough, smart and rebellious, all qualities that she has, even though living at the bottom of the social barrel.
Nothing “HAPPENS” in “The Florida Project” but lots of stuff “happens” as we live with Moonee, her mom and her friends in a world that is both modern and retro at once. I give it an A-.
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