|Original caricature by Jeff York of Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.
If Willem Dafoe didn’t star in it, you might think THE FLORIDA PROJECT was a documentary. That is how realistic this new movie plays. It seems like cinema verite – an improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality – but it is not. That may be the biggest compliment to filmmaker Sean Baker. He has managed to write (with Chris Bergoch) and direct a film that feels utterly observational, spontaneous, and even haphazard at times. The film captures the messiness of life, its randomness, and miraculously, most of it is done with child actors so natural you think you’re watching a documentary.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a daring work, filling its story with a people most Americans don’t even know exist. The focus of the film is on a precocious 6-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) who lives with her welfare mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in an extended-stay motel in Kissimmee, Florida, not far from Walt Disney World. The title of the movie is a play on what Disney and his minions called their plans to develop the world’s largest theme park in Orlando back in the 1960s. It also may be intended to reference how those like Halley and Moonee survive in such an existence. For them, their Florida project is to make it through the day as best they can under such dire circumstances.
Could the title also suggest that their home is similar to that of a project or tenement? Perhaps, especially since most of the tenants of The Magic Castle Motel, a cartoonish mauve-painted tourist trap, are welfare mothers, transients, and others who are down on their luck. They are disenfranchised, yet Baker’s film makes the argument that their stories are worthy and deserving of our empathy.
That may be a tall order for audiences weaned on the current cinema of fantasies, futuristic worlds, superheroes, and CGI monsters, let alone an arthouse crowd used to period pieces and Oscar bait. If people keep an open mind, they will enter the theater and experience a unique movie experience, a film that is utterly unflinching in its portrayal of societal outcasts. The film may remind you of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, another movie about a precocious child trying to navigate her way through youth and poverty. Moonee is akin to the character of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) in that film, though not quite as heroic or likable.
Moonee is a tough little kid, often brusque and noisy, even bratty. She’s fiercely independent because she has to be as her mother is often too preoccupied to mother her. A girl of six shouldn’t be out on her own walking the streets, exploring abandoned buildings, and panhandling for dollars to buy ice cream, but this is Moonee’s daily existence. Amazingly, she handles most of the obstacles that cross her path with an upbeat, “can do” attitude.
Like most little girls, she loves sweets, laughing with friends, and running around the neighborhood making playtime out of a tree, street or picnic table. Yet, there is danger lurking at almost every corner. On the strip where she lives, there are all kinds of drama a six-year-old should never run headlong into – drug deals going down, prostitutes turning tricks, and a collection of intruding vagrants and deviants. They’re as much a part of her everyday life as the tourists and garish stores she frequents.
But Moonee manages, worldly beyond her years, and unwilling to take any shit. She has a potty mouth that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. And she plays the game too, panhandling for dollars to buy treats, and helping her mother sell various products to gullible visitors to the Sunshine State. Moonee even seems to delight in it, enjoying all the crazy people and buildings built to look like giant oranges or wizards. It’s as if she’s the star of her own cartoon show chock full of crazy characters and outrageous settings.
Still, in this environment, Moonee hasn’t just learned to survive, she’s inherited all sorts of bad habits, mostly from her wayward mom. Hallee is a piece of work – half charmer, half trainwreck. She’s a welfare queen, only in her early twenties, yet tatted up and tarted up, on the lookout for easy drugs, easier money, and dupable men. And the chip she carries on her shoulder is as big as some of those goofy stores along the strip.
So how can we empathize with such an awful woman? Halley’s rap sheet keeps her from gainful employment and she makes ends meet by hooking. She also smokes too much, drinks too much, and scores drugs, lying and cheating her way to the rent due at the end of each week. Yet, despite all that, she is relatable. She wants to help her daughter, even if her methods aren’t always the best and include too much fast food and junkie toys. And Halley isn’t going to win any Mother of the Year awards when she turns tricks in the motel room during Moonee’s bath time.
It’s depressing to watch such bad behavior. At times, you want to scream at the screen. Still, Baker and Bergoch beckon us to stay with their story and these troubled people. Perhaps the filmmakers are making that most Christian of arguments in suggesting that there but for the grace of God go any of us. Still, this is an exceedingly cringe-inducing film and not for those merely desiring escapism.
But despite all the awfulness, there is a sweet nobleness to Moonee that keeps us on her side. She is kind to her friends Jancy (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and they know enough to stay away from genuine trouble. And even when they start a fire in an abandoned motel just for kicks, thankfully none of them get hurt, and no one else in the neighborhood perishes in the flames.
Some practical parental guidance does come to the kids from Bobby (Dafoe), the world-weary manager of the motel. He not only takes care of all the little problems from broken washing machines to donation drop-offs, but he keeps the children tenants on the straight and narrow where and when he can. Whether he wants it or not, he becomes a reluctant father figure to them.
Bobby’s style is gruff but respectful. He has a strong moral sense and in one of the film’s best scenes, the motel manager prevents an aging pervert from getting his hands on the kids. Watching Dafoe play the emotions of the scene, from fearful to bullying in a matter of moments, is amazing to see. Dafoe seamlessly blends toughness with sensitivity, and it may be his best onscreen work to date. Expect him to figure strongly in awards season.
Vinaite does marvelous work here too. Halley is the villain of the piece, but the actress manages to make her likable even when she’s at her most loathsome. In fact, Baker ensures that all of his cast treat their characters with dignity, never condescending to them or overplaying their problems.
In our age of growing economic disparity, with more and more of our nation’s citizenry struggling merely to make ends meet, this film couldn’t be timelier. Again, there but for the grace of God go any of us. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is truly a film of the moment, showing the struggles of the growing population of people who are on the outside looking it. It is a moviegoing experience that is harrowing at times, inspiring at others, and unflinching in showcasing the background of poverty in these characters’ lives.
It’s also daring in that it has no real plot, no big set pieces, and no normal character arcs. It plays out organically, showing moments of life being experienced moment by aching moment. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who can handle extremely unconventional storytelling populated with fringe-dwelling characters, this uncompromising film is a must-see. It may be exceptionally hard to watch, but it’s even harder to get out of your head.