How rare for a movie to allow kids to be kids in all their ferocious glory. They are capable of wreaking so much wondrous havoc in their natural, unfettered state. The frankness and fearlessness of the children in The Florida Project is both refreshing and disarming. Director Sean Baker revels in the anarchic, comedic spirit of kids. We meet Moonee, Scooty, Dicky, and the newest member of their gang, Jancey, as they race through the breezeways of The Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida. The purple walls of the dingy motel provide a vibrant backdrop for all kinds of play. As adults, we fear for their safety. We recognize the precarious financial conditions that plunge single moms or even grandmothers into homelessness.
The Florida Project demonstrates how much resilience resides in the human heart despite trying circumstances. We marvel at Moonee’s ability to forage for herself, to find her way back, to dance amidst a depressing setting. Moonee’s creative mind can turn spying on cows into an African safari. An electric fan, a crowded desk, an abandoned building are all opportunities for joyous child’s play. We learn to pause and appreciate the rainbow rising behind the hotel with Moonee and Jancey.
Director Sean Baker and cinematographer Alex Zabe capture the garish colors and absurd settings just outside the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. “The Florida Project” was the original name of Walt Disney’s massive undertaking. His capitalist pluck also inspired the birth of buildings outside the park shaped like a giant orange or a Twistee Treat of ice cream. Credit co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch for taking us beyond the Magic Kingdom, where the Futureland Inn trades on dreams of tomorrow while its residents are trapped in a harrowing cycle of poverty. While plenty of families enjoy the rides inside Disney, these kids are playing with literal fire.
We may be inclined to judge the women raising their children alone. How can they be so negligent? Why don’t they send their kids to school? How do they even pay their daily rent? We see Ashley (Mela Murder) slipping waffles out of the backdoor of the diner where she works to support Scooty. We may even admire the resourcefulness of Halley (Bria Vinaite) buying wholesale perfume and hocking it with her daughter Moonee to tourists nearby. We understand why Ashley and Halley need a moms’ night out. Of course, they slip out to the hotel pool for a beer or a joint after their children finally fall asleep. These women are tough as nails and so are their children. But will doing their best to survive be enough for families living on a literal margin, week to week?
Watching over the kids while they rampage through the property is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the beleaguered manager who always seems to have a washer, dryer or icemaker that needs to be fixed. The residents shout, “I love you, Bobby” when he restores the power. But they love him for additional reasons: Bobby almost always looks the other way when the residents need a break. He serves as our eyes, wary and weary, recognizing how much danger Moonee and her friends are always in. His intervention when a potential child molester wanders onto the hotel grounds is heroic. He may be harried by the kids, but Bobby is deeply invested in their well-being.
The Little Rascals premiered almost one hundred years ago. The Our Gang comedies also allowed kids to bring their bountiful creative spirit to movies. Memorable characters included Spanky, Stymie, Buckwheat and Alfalfa. Our Gang was groundbreaking in how it crossed gender and color lines to present a united front under the banner of childhood. The exuberant innocence of children shone through.
Sean Baker continues that nearly forgotten vein of deeply humane filmmaking. In casting Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, another precocious child star has been born. It is easy to see why Baker lets the camera roll when Brooklynn rips through an all-you-can-eat-buffet with such remarkable aplomb. She is a nearly indefatigable life-force. Baker has a remarkable ability to discover new talent, to work with first-time actors. He captured the inherent worth and dignity of porn actresses in Starlet and transgender prostitutes in Tangerine. Real people in real settings results in this decidedly R-rated, deeply empathetic drama.
Only in the third act, do we see how quickly questionable decisions spiral out of control. More than alligators lurk in the water. The specter of fatal accidents, jail time, and the Department of Child & Family looms large throughout the film. We see medical clinics that are closed and signs advertising Machine Gun America instead. Social safety nets seem ill equipped to tackle Halley and Moonee’s problems. Their defiant screams and desperate tears turn the focus from them to us, the public. At a time when empathy seems to be increasingly rare, The Florida Project dares us to care. We may choose to reside in Fantasylands, but even amidst seemingly Magic Kingdoms, children on the margin desperately need genuine friends.