Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” is a miracle. A look at poverty that neither preaches nor exploits, it’s both joyous and heartbreaking, opening our eyes to those on society’s margins without losing an ounce of humanity.
The film takes place at The Magic Castle, a day-glo purple budget motel in Orlando. While tourists spend thousands at luxurious resorts, visitors only head to the ultra-cheap motel if their reservations fall through. Otherwise, it’s occupied by people who can’t afford to live elsewhere, negotiating to pay monthly fees to craft makeshift apartments.
The film is told through the eyes of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) tries her best to scrape together jobs, dancing at a local club and hawking perfumes, but she’s also prone to drunken rage and misguided decisions. Her contact at the child welfare department has seen this before and tries to impress the importance of getting it together for Moonee. The motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is familiar with this too, but knows that if they end up leaving, another mother and child will be in next week.
It could be a depressing existence, but Moonee doesn’t see it that way. She tears across the Magic Castle like she owns the place, friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) in tow. They barge into off-limit rooms, bound through abandoned condos and scam free ice cream from tourists. They get into trouble, annoy Bobby and return to their rooms unaware that their blissful existence is also the setting for the hardest times in their parents’ lives.
Baker’s previous film, “Tangerine” was regarded one of the best of 2014. While its notoriety mostly came from Baker’s ability to get beautiful cinematography on an iPhone, it also proved the director a voice for people who normally don’t see themselves in Hollywood stories — in that film’s case, transgender sex workers in Los Angeles. Baker has traded his iPhone for more traditional equipment, but he’s kept his empathetic eye. The world of hidden homelessness — people who live from location to location, paycheck to paycheck — is one that often goes overlooked, even though it affects thousands in America, most of them single mothers and their children.
“The Florida Project” isn’t an issue film. It simply observes life in the Magic Castle, filtering it through the eyes of the children who run through its corridors, having the time of their lives and unaware of their dire straits. Baker takes in every neon-lit motel and garish souvenir shop, letting the Florida sun soak into every scene. Signs of Disney World are everywhere, reminding us that in the same area where Americans spend thousands to vacation with a mouse, others are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. The film never preaches, but it’s impossible to miss.The young actors are fantastic, and the film is often very funny as the three go through their adventures, get in trouble and hassle the adults. They may be poor, but the way they see it, they get to play around swamps teeming with wildlife, explore abandoned buildings, score free ice cream and live in a castle. They don’t see their parents scrimping for the next check; they’re unaware that they’re often just a week away from being on the streets.
Baker also shows the reality the adults work to shield the kids from as they struggle to keep jobs and keep the income coming. While Baker spares judgment, he’s also a realist. Newcomer Vinaite gives a nuanced performance, creating one of the year’s most complex characters in Halley, who loves her daughter but is also immature, prone to anger, indignant and unapologetic about her life choices, even those that may endanger Moonee’s safety. We at once want to cheer Halley on and urge her to get her life together.
Keeping watch over the Magic Castle is Bobby, in one of the most moving performances of Dafoe’s career. Bobby is the suffering servant, doing what he can to help his tenants. He’s firm but loving, unafraid to kick tenants out if they violate the terms of their stay but willing to float them a few bucks to get through the week. He goes about the day fixing the motel and enduring the anger of deadbeats, keeping his eye on the children. A sequence in which he keeps a potential sex offender off the property might be the most heroic moment Dafoe has ever been given. One gets the sense that Bobby’s heroism goes unnoticed now but the children will see him as a revered father figure later in life.
Baker fills the movie with color and keeps his eyes fixed on the characters. While he understands reality must eventually catch up to Moonee and Halley, he never wallows. “The Florida Project” is often a very lively movie, capturing the carefree days of childhood while also showing the stressors that cause adults to crack. It doesn’t build to a climax, but rather lets its emotion come organically, delivering a gut punch in the third act when Baker’s decision to let fantasy bleed in doesn’t feel like a cheap cop-out but a moment of deep empathy.
“The Florida Project” isn’t going to make tens of millions of dollars and it could easily be ignored in the onslaught of superhero movies and prestige pictures. That would be a mistake. Once again, Baker has made one of the most deeply compassionate and humane movies of the year. “The Florida Project” is among the best of 2017, and a reminder of film’s capacity for observing and caring.
Originally published in the Grosse Pointe News.