The Florida Project would, oddly enough, pair well with The Big Short for a double bill, because, in their own ways, they cover similar ground, albeit from the two opposite sides of the proverbial coin. The Big Short examines the 2008 economic collapse, and how it was spurred by predatory financial institutions taking advantage of people’s hopes and dreams of succeeding in America, from the point of view of the banks that caused the catastrophe; The Florida Project shows us the swampy, brightly-colored, half-decayed Florida landscape briefly glimpsed in The Big Short, and centers on the very people who are struggling the most financially as a result of the greed of others and the desire to achieve the vaunted American Dream. Halley (Bria Vinaite), a single mother barely into her twenties, lives week-to-week with her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) at the Magic Castle Inn, which manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) has tried to gussy up with cartoonish pinks and purples and trompe-l’oeil lancet windows. The Magic Castle is full of families like Hailey’s and Moonee’s, as are the numerous motels in their corner of Orlando, Florida, separated from one another by water-clogged green grass, garish stores like temples to excess, and hollowed-out, abandoned tract homes painted in the same Disney-esque colors.
This world is where Moonee runs wild one fateful summer, accompanied by Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), whom she meets when she spits directly onto her face from a motel balcony. Naturally, being around six, the girls soon become best friends after this incident. Left to their own devices, the children explore, swindle money for ice cream, create mischief, and make fun of tourists, holding court in their strange kingdom, returning each night to their families in their motel rooms. Visually, The Florida Project owes much of its approach to cinematography to Wes Anderson — the colors recall The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the numerous long shots where the camera holds still, placing the children as small specks moving across a static background from a frontal viewpoint, are very Anderson-esque. Director Sean Baker works in an observational mode, simply letting the camera follow Moonee and her friends around, or framing them in long takes against the artificial backgrounds of Orange World, Tillie’s Twistee Treat ice cream, and the Giant Wizard Head gift shop, allowing the ambient noise of the highway to nearly drown them out. He captures snippets of their charming, often profane conversations, cutting from one day to the next to create a slice-of-life story that only begins to take on a narrative aspect around the halfway mark. Incidents that take up one sequence are left to dangle, unresolved; people abruptly arrive and leave, like Moonee’s friend Dicky (Aiden Malik), who is only in a few early scenes before he and his father have to leave, their car too stuffed to keep Dicky’s toys, the children all dry-eyed as Dickey’s father promises helplessly to buy him even better new toys. The kids have clearly all seen this kind of thing before, and know how fragile their friendships can be, even if they don’t totally understand the world of adults that controls them.
The first half of The Florida Project thus sets the stage where Moonee and her friends make their universe, while the second half shifts its focus to include Halley and Bobby as characters in their own right, rather than stock types orbiting the tykes. Halley is a heavily-tattooed young single mother without a job who’s rarely seen without a blunt or a cigarette resting between her fingers, but she’s also fiercely devoted to Moonee, doing whatever she can to provide her daughter with moments of joy and magic — playing roughhousing and tickling games in the pouring rain, or pushing Moonee around and around store aisles, giving her a thrill as exciting as any ride at Disney World. Bobby may be crabby and stern, but he genuinely cares for Moonee and Halley’s well-being as well as for everyone else living in his motel, wanting more than anything for Halley to be able to be the mother Moonee needs.
The performances are all top-notch; Brooklynn Prince is adorable and heart-wrenching as the effervescent Moonee, who, when she’s not being a little scamp underfoot, reveals herself to be remarkably perceptive and inquisitive of the world around her. Prince’s performance feels so natural that it almost doesn’t feel like acting — at least, until the emotional stakes get more precarious, and then it becomes clear that Prince is a precocious young talent who knows exactly what she’s doing. Bria Vinaite commands — and slowly reveals — Halley’s hidden depths, making a role that could have been a tawdry stereotype into something real and desperate, while Willem Dafoe is also utterly believable as the one who’s supposed to be in charge, inadvertently falling into a fatherly role towards Halley despite her protestations. Valeria Cotto’s Jancey is, for the most part, the more subdued of Moonee’s friends, happy to follow Moonee on whatever adventure she cooks up, and so it is deeply heartwarming when Cotto gets that fierce look in her eyes towards the end of the movie, and takes the lead when Moonee needs her help most.
The Florida Project is ultimately a beautiful, rough portrait of childhood set against the backdrop of the remains of the dreams of adults, which, like so many Florida oranges, have become overripe and rotten. It’s wholly true to how children actually behave (there’s no unrealistic hyper-verbalism played for the sake of laughter, with the exception of Moonee swearing much more than you’d expect a six-year-old to swear). In the ecosystem of alligator warnings, cheap motels, and highway lanes that comprises The Florida Project, nothing is permanent: summer will inevitably end; friends will leave and never come back; good fortune one day might be gone the next, leaving Halley and Moonee without the money for pepperoni on their pizza. It might be cheesy, but the most permanent element of the movie is love, no matter how strained or combative, and in the end, it’s the love that Moonee has, and that everyone else has for Moonee, that make all the difference.
Stills and trailer from the Florida Project
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