by Ken Bakely
The Magic Castle motel, the setting of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, is a hideous-looking place. Ten miles outside of Orlando, it’s a three-story establishment, running at a cheap nightly rate. It’s drenched in vibrant purple paint, and its resemblance in name to the nearby Disney World landmark leads to regular confusion from befuddled tourists. Consequently, it’s much more telling who intends to be there. The motel functions as de facto low-income housing, where dozens of poor individuals and families take residence. Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the aging manager, periodically moves them from room to room, so he doesn’t appear to be renting out permanent units.
When we start observing this ecosystem, it’s the beginning of summer vacation, and the grade school-aged Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) passes the time with her friends. They panhandle for ice cream money under false pretenses, break into abandoned buildings, and spit on cars. In general terms, they seem like bad kids. But what else are they to do? What are their means? The Florida Project presents their world as a lived-in fact. Moonee explores her surroundings with a wide-eyed wonder. She talks with blazing assuredness and an optimistic idealism, because she is a kid. In a way, that’s the most revolutionary idea the film furthers. As Baker shows us the difficult lives of those in this poverty, he simultaneously creates a bright and joyful celebration of childhood.
It’s when the film pulls back that we realize how securely kept this depleted world is. Bobby is implied to be the only major character with a steady job or financial means, and he presides over the motel’s children with a firm but caring hand. When he chases off a suspected pedophile (Carl Bradfield) who approaches the kids one day, Baker keeps the focus on the two men, rather than the children, who remain unaware of what’s going on. It’s that carried directorial approach, in coordination with Dafoe’s carefully occupying performance, which maintains the idea of a divide. Those growing up in the Magic Castle, or one of the motels in its vicinity, aren’t outwardly bothered by where they are. A late-stage entrance of social workers – still infiltration from the outside world – shows how even a rescue figure doesn’t know what it’s actually like.
These scenes are all independent, lacking a formal narrative, stitched into a quilt of strong actions and indelible settings. The Florida Project is a movie about survival, but part of survival is to persevere and acknowledge individual moments. It makes sense, after all – beyond the inability for little kids to think far beyond the present, their parents or guardians are quite literally trying to determine where their next meal is coming from. This is most clearly presented in the form of Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). She’s impulsive, crude, and brash. But she’s also headstrong and free-willed. Baker does not name her a “good mother” by making her morally incorruptible or crafting her as a role model, but the character displays a fierce perseverance that sums up the film’s thesis.
Baker’s previous work, Tangerine, also allowed us into an otherwise invisible world and showed us characters we may never get to know. That movie depicted two transgender women working as prostitutes, and threw us into a vast kaleidoscope of underseen networks, locales, and subcultures in Los Angeles, as the protagonists pursued a near-Sisyphean goal. The Florida Project – despite lacking a defined goal for Moonee, Halley, Bobby, or anyone else – is even more involving and fascinating. It freely moves us around the incidents and personalities that occupy its vibrant universe. Moreover, it further establishes Baker as a filmmaker of keen observational abilities and deep-rooted benevolence.
He doesn’t pretend that it would be easy to escape these desperate straits. He never argues that this life is sustainable or idyllic. But he shows something more powerful, and more real: how people can adapt, even at the earliest of ages, to search for happiness and contentment, for hope and agency. For those of us who have only known more comfortable living, the film’s initial scenes are bracing. The first time we see the abject lack of resources or traditional responsibility in the lives of Moonee and her young friends, we’re dismayed. We worry for their futures, their safety, and their personhood. Two hours later, our concerns remain, but we’ve learned a valuable perspective from the other side. We see an unfamiliar, unrelenting stretch of poverty. But we also see their home. And although tomorrow is always a dangerous mystery, they continue to laugh and play to get through today. The Florida Project makes its mark there. It’s a compelling portrait of human resilience.