When I was a kid, I had this VHS tape that I watched repeatedly. It was one of those promotional videos that Disney would send out that highlighted the magic of Disneyland and encouraged you (or in this case your parents) to book now and experience it for yourself. Needless to say, I was entranced – and why not? After all, Disney is the ultimate escape; away from the mundane and whatever troubles that may plague daily life and into a literal fairy tale (castle included). Unfortunately, that magic is just restricted to the grounds of the theme park; just a few miles away it’s a different story depicting lives more reminiscent of Cinderella at the beginning of her journey rather than the end expect this is real life, not fantasy. Here there are no guarantees of a happy ending.
Such is the subject of Sean Baker’s latest film The Florida Project but don’t tell that to Moonee (played wonderfully by Brooklynn Prince) the spunky young girl who sees the world with equal parts curiosity and optimism. To her, everything is an adventure and the raggedy motel she calls home (appropriately named The Magic Castle) along with the surrounding areas composed of strip malls, equally run-down motels (each with its own ironic motif) and chain restaurants serve as her own personal theme park. Thanks to her creativity and striking independence she is able to utilize her intelligence to manufacture her own fun. Whether that be conning local tourists into buying her ice cream or just spitting on parked cars from the balcony above, everything can be made into an adventure so long as you possess enough imagination.
Through this lens, there runs the risk of minimizing or romanticizing the circumstances that these characters are handed and in the hands of an inferior movie or filmmaker this would be the case but Baker never marginalizes the plight of his subject. Instead, the segments with Moonie and her adventures serve as a contrast to the other vignettes featured in the film wherein we see just how much better it is to live in the carefree mindset of the young star.
First, there is Moonie’s mother Hailey (Bria Vinaite) who works odd jobs and runs various gambits to make ends meet. Clearly still a young woman in her own right, she is thrust into a situation that demands more maturity than her years afford. She is flawed, brash and crude (traits passed along to her daughter) but beneath her tough exterior is a mother who truly loves her child. Then there is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who serves as the manager of The Magic Castle. He runs the establishment at the behest of (a largely unseen) upper management, trying to hold the place together and keep its occupants from causing any major problems. He is sympathetic to the socioeconomic circumstances that many of the residents of his motel have but is firm so as to not be undermined.
For Vinaite, this is quite the debut performance as she previously was known more for her social media presence than acting chops and for Dafoe, this is an interesting turn and a departure from the typical character he has played in the past. Whether either performance will garner any award consideration remains to be seen but the lowkey nature of the performance (especially on Dafoe’s part) will be detrimental to voters looking for flashier roles. If anyone should win any accolades however, it should be for Prince who at six years old demonstrates more range and energy than many of her adult counterparts.
Together the performances have a subtlety to them in that at times you forget that you are watching actors on screen and the film feels almost documentary in tone. It is a very realist film operating in direct opposition to the sunny optimism of the Moonee centric scenes showcasing the darkness that lurks beneath the bright exteriors of sunny Florida. Much like his breakout film Tangerine, Baker is able to spotlight the lives of the underprivileged without making it exploitive. A lesser film would have been filled with sap and sentimentality. Instead, Baker and his actors approach the subject with honesty. What that entails is not an act that panders for an emotional response through manufactured conflict, rather, these people are simply trying to survive life both at its most challenging and its most mundane. Thus the performances and the film itself feels authentic encouraging genuine concern over these characters’ lives as we spend more time with them.
Real-life is messy, filled with battle scars where well-intentioned people do not always get rewarded for their ethics. The Florida Project does not try to hide this striking a fine balance between the fantasy worlds depicted in promotional adverting and the dark depths that life may send you down. Maybe this is why escapism is so powerful whether that be achieved through our own fantasies (like Moonie’s) or the ones created by Disney. Because in a sense, Disneyland (or in this case world) represents the ultimate escapism, the place where everyone is happy and the problems of the outside world get left at the gate. However, sometimes no matter how far you run, you can’t escape life’s harsh realities.
Review: The Florida Project Finds Truth And Beauty In The Shadow of Americana
Sean Baker once again spotlights America's underrepresented in a hard-hitting examination of life a few miles from the happiest place on earth