The Florida Project (2017)

  • Time: 115 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Sean Baker
  • Cast: Willem Dafoe, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto


Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.


  • The title “Florida Project” refers to (i) the projects type of crammed, seedy community these working and unemployed denizens are crammed into, and (ii) writer/director Sean Baker’s undertaking to record the life children and their single moms live in the American underbelly.
    This Florida digs beyond the fantasy of Disneyworld to the seediness of the cheap old motel where the transient can afford to take temporary root. This is the world that the liberals disdain, Hillary’s “deplorables,” the people who see no other hope than voting for Trump.
    In an early scene a honeymooning couple find they’ve booked into the cheap motel Magic Castle, not the Disney luxurious fantasy. At the end little Moonee and Jansey run toward that Disney dreamworld, in futile attempt to escape their unaccommodating reality.
    Tom Sawyer meets Thelma and Louise.
    The bulk of the film is the amazing spectacle of Moonee and her friends bouncing through a life of simple adventures. Fueled on sugar the kids are constantly running, dancing, jumping, doing everything especially the forbidden. “We’re not supposed to go into that room. Let’s go in anyway.” The blackout they cause the whole motel brightens their day, their unharnessed mustang spirit.
    When they burn down the vacated condo complex the blaze excites the kids and adults alike. But it forces a rift between the two kids’ mothers, Moonee’s Halley and the girlfriend who has been giving them free food from her diner.
    The motel women provide a spectrum of responsibility. At one end is the African American grandmother raising her daughter’s child. She knows discipline should not be fun. Then there’s Scooty’s hard-working waitress mom who is close and generous towards Halley until she feels her son endangered by Halley’s example.
    At the other, Halley is more immature than her six-year-old daughter. To earn money Halley lives on the fly, hawking cheap perfume, feeding off friends and fraud, finally turning to prostitution, which loses first her best friend then Moonee.
    Apparently Moonee has not been going to school. She has to be told what “recess” is, because her life has been one long recess. So has Halley’s, which makes her eventual loss of her daughter inevitable. Tragic, but inevitable.
    The film’s themes and emotions are propelled by the children’s amazing performances, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonee. In the concluding wallop Moonee runs to Jansey not to seek refuge from the social agency — which we first expect — but to say goodbye. She knows she has lost her freedom, her mother, her particular childhood.
    When the once goodie-goodie Jansey takes her hand and runs away with her, the kids make one last grab at the life they want to live. Like their mothers, they’ll have to lapse into the life to which their social and economic status restricts them.
    In the opening shot, the motel wall provides an abstract composition of pink and grey. The two squirming kids seated in front of it inject life into that abstraction, as the characters do to terms like “the projects” or “the deplorables.”
    Indeed the range of settings frustrates any attempt at generalization. The motel embodies the life Florida tourists ignore. The commercial landscapes are a surreal eruption of crazy buildings and garishness.
    Against those two forms of denaturedness, two scenes find Moonee freeing her imagination in escapes to nature. In one she sits in what she declares her “favourite tree”: it fell over but still carries on. That prefigures her own conclusion. Then she takes Jansey on “safari” — to a field of cows. The games and adventures Moonee keeps inventing are her spontaneous attempt to imagine a richer life than her situation provides. It’s a livelier alternative to her mother’s armour of tattoos.
    Presiding over this world is motel manager Bobby. Willem Dafoe is more familiar as an edgy, crazy character, which lends weight to the moral and character centre he plays here. His responsibility continually pitches him against Moonie’s mischief and Halley’s truancy. But he cares for them both. He achieves a modest heroism when he spots and assails a child molester, then when he drives off Halley’s threatening john. But when the social agency and police get involved, Bobby can only stand aside, sympathetic but helpless.
    Bobby tries to keep up the motel’s image. He repaints the walls and plans to fix the washers. He tries to enforce the laws. The owner instructs Bobby to have the tenants move their bikes off the front balcony. Clearly he wants to upscale the place — like the other motel Bobby tries to get Halley into. The wheels of the economy grind on. Soon even this Magic Castle will go upscale, casting out its desperate tenants and challenging them even more.
    These are the characters America has left behind.

  • Two years ago, writer-director Sean Baker announced himself as a filmmaker to watch with his fifth feature, Tangerine, a vibrant slice-of-life revolving around a transgender prostitute that was entirely shot on with iPhone cameras. His latest work, The Florida Project, is an equally dynamic affair, this time shot on digital and 35mm film, and focusing on another community of marginalised figures, ones living in the run-down but gaudily-coloured motels in Kissimmee, Florida, not too far from Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

    Point of fact: Disney World was known as “The Florida Project” at the time of its development and though the motels of the film bear names like the Magic Castle and Futureland, they are distinctly leeched of any sense of wonder and promise. If anything, they seem like purgatories for its dwellers, all of whom are living hand-to-mouth existences. Not that that reality registers for the group of kids, led by six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), on which the film focuses. Much like the urchins that fronted Hal Roach’s Our Gang series, which Baker cites as a major influence, Moonee and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Dicky (Aiden Malik) roam about their surroundings, treating it like one infinite wonderland in which there is fun to be had and chaos to be caused.

    Indeed, how can they not view their environment as a playground of sorts? From the orange-shaped Orange World to the giant Wizard that adorns the gift shop to the ice cream shop designed to look like an ice cream cone, everything has a touch of wonder. Even her mother Halley’s (Bria Vinaite) constant hustlings to meet the $38 a night rent is like a game for Moonee, who helps her hawk perfumes to tourists in hotel parking lots. Yet Baker doesn’t ignore the darker aspects: for one thing, there’s no denying that Halley’s reckless lifestyle and combative nature is being absorbed by Moonee. The near-sociopathic ragings of Halley are, quite frankly, hard to tolerate, which already places viewers firmly on the side of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the exasperated hotel manager who also serves as Moonee’s somewhat reluctant father figure and protector.

    Baker observes the goings-on with a documentarian’s eye, and does well in integrating more seasoned performers like Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones with inexperienced first-timers like Vinaite, whom Baker discovered on Instagram, and the irresistible dynamo that is Prince. However, inasmuch as Vinaite looks and often acts the part, one has a very strong sense that a more skilled actress would have been less self-conscious and one-note. Though The Florida Project is more polished overall than the raggedly resplendent Tangerine, it feels a somewhat lesser film. It may have to do with the episodic nature of the film or perhaps even its subjects. Yet it’s difficult to deny its predominant big-heartedness, its discovering beauty in the darkest of depths, and for that stirring finale which Baker shot guerrilla-style on his iPhone.

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  • The Florida Project (RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: B


    The kids are not alright in Sean Baker’s intimate drama, The Florida Project. The children are regularly unsupervised, crossing dangerous highways and walking miles from home, which seems all commonplace to them and acceptable behavior for the adults around them as they ignore their safety. Waffles, jelly sandwiches, and pizza is their regular and affordable diet. A rare shopping spree at a dollar store becomes a special celebration. All of these small touches elevate the power of this film’s message.

    But children see the world with different eyes and that can be a good thing as it hides some of the ugly realities in this world. It protects them from the harsh truth. We meet little Moonee and her friends during their summer vacation, living at the Magic Castle Inn, near Futureland, both flea-bag motels that house welfare families and lower class residents such as her trashy and volatile single mother, Halley. And while the sunny weather may shine in this Sunshine State, all is not happy and aglow.

    Mr. Baker shows his larger-than-life characters living at poverty level with his camerawork capturing the squalor and desperation. On a small budget, he takes us into this unfamiliar world to many of us. The screen is awash in gaudy pop architecture painted in vivid purples and hot pinks as its setting, a lost land of 60’s kitsch and undeniable hardship. He also depicts the innocence of children, filling their days with games and activities, like sharing an ice cream cone after begging for change, playing hide-and-seek in deserted tenements, talking into a fan to hear their altered voices, playing with a cigarette lighter. It is all shown matter-of-factly in a cinéma-vérité style. His strength is more as a director than screenwriter. His screenplay, co-authored by Chris Bergoch, needs more focus on its narrative structure and some rewrites.

    The cast are mostly unfamiliar faces which adds to the authenticity and grittiness of the story. Except for a fine Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the stern but caring motel manager, the film takes its characters and their dire situations and forces us to see their lives on display. The aforementioned screenplay is becomes an effective character study about these “low-lifes” rather than a well-plotted story. Mr. Baker tends to allow scenes to go on too long with too much improvisation and more atmosphere than substance. He tends to use his strong imagery well, although he repeats himself too often with some of his settings and story-lines. (And let’s not go into an incomplete and awful ending that undercuts his fine narrative. It absolutely makes no sense and one leaves his film with some dissatisfaction after investing your time in this fascinating characters.)

    Aside from Mr. Defoe’s subtle portrayal of a man trying to be a little girl’s distant protector, the acting throughout the film is uniformly strong with Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as a precocious six year old Moonee. She gives a breakout performance which is quite natural and heart-breaking…and very impressive for such a young actress.  As her mother, Bria Vinaite takes on the most difficult role as her mother, a very unlikable character and makes her vulnerable, yet hard, unfit to care for her daughter, angry and frustrated with her lot in life. Everyone in The Florida Project is trying to survive.

    It’s a hard knock life and The Florida Project makes that perfectly clear. But the question still remains: Who will listen?

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