Movie Review: The Florida Project
A single mother and her precociously savvy daughter scratch out a living in a $38-a-night motel beside Disney World in this gritty look at American life near the bottom
The Florida Project
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite
Directed by: Sean Baker
Running time: 111 minutes
By Jay Stone
The final scene of The Florida Project — an almost painfully realistic drama about a childhood on the fringes of what we used to call the American Dream — takes place at Disney World, that irresistible Florida monument to plasticized fantasy, commercialized nostalgia and a lucrative mouse. It’s just around the corner from where the rest of the movie is set, a hopeless, $38-a-night motel called the Magic Castle, a name seemingly designed to grab a few inattentive vacationers who might confuse it with the Magic Kingdom. The two locales are separated by a drainage ditch that runs along the entrance ramp to Seven Dwarfs Lane.
Disney World is where middle-class families indulge in innocent, expensive fun. The Florida Project (which was Walt Disney’s name for the theme park before it was built) is a story about people indulging in the guilty, dangerous kind: a tattooed mother named Halley (Bria Vinaite, in her acting debut) who has quit her stripping job and now gets by on scams, a bit of prostitution, and the foul-mouthed sense of angry entitlement with which the dispossessed (not to mention under-clothed) express their critique of capitalism, even while abusing its ever-shrinking scraps of charity. Her six-year-old daughter Moonee (the remarkable Brooklyn Prince, daughter of an acting coach), is a tough and adorable hell-raiser who has inherited her mother’s disregard for social norms and has quickly learned how to beg for spare change around the local Twistee Treat shop (“the doctor says I have asthma and I’ve got to eat ice cream.”)
The Florida Project follows their gradual decline from the bottom to the rock bottom, stopping along the way to celebrate the uniquely louche culture (and architecture) on the edges of society. Moonee and her small gang of friends — one of whom lives in the neighbouring but no more imposing Futureland Inn (“Stay in the Future Today”) — wander past orange juice stands shaped like giant oranges, a gift shop built into a giant model of a wizard, and, later, in front of a strip mall presided over by store that goes by the name of Machine Gun America. “Blessourtroops,” reads a sign out front.
The movie was directed, co-written, and edited by Sean Baker, a filmmaker with a vision of life on the bottom, or at least outside our field of vision. His previous movie, Tangerine (2015), which was shot on an iPhone, follows a desperate transgender prostitute through the streets of Los Angeles at Christmas as she searched for her faithless pimp. God forsake us, every one.
Tangerine had a similar feel of desperate, discarded hope, but it was grittier than The Florida Project, which is set on the fringes of the fringe. It tells its story mostly through the eyes of Moonee, who has a child’s natural optimism and benefits from the fact that Halley, for all her druggy, sexualized failings, seems to be a loving, or at least well-meaning, parent. The child is raised on ice cream, cheese doodles, charity lunches and the waffles that Halley cadges from a friend who works at a nearby pancake house, but she looks healthy enough. It’s telling that, in a story that takes place just spitting distance from an iconic holiday spot, Moonee spends the first part of the film spitting off a motel balcony onto cars parked below. It’s part of her summer vacation activities.
Baker uses mostly first-time actors, who bring an authenticity and a surprisingly adept sense of drama to the story. The only known face — and a craggy face it is — belongs to Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the motel’s manager. Dafoe is usually cast as a character who is in some way frightening, but here he shows a softer side. Bobby is as patient and indulgent as he can be; he’s the more kindly side of a ruling bureaucracy through which Halley must stickhandle to get enough to eat or pay the rent. She steals a bit, or crashes the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets of nearby fancy motels, or buys perfume at a discount store and then sells it in the parking lots of swanky golf resorts, using Moonee as her prop and co-sales agent. Moonee is not above telling a prospective customer that the fragrance will make him handsomer.
It’s difficult to find a villain in all this. Halley and her friends —women who live in the motels and scratch out a living — are the victims of a rapacious capitalism that is so well established it’s not even mentioned. Halley’s life is never explained either; we see her as Moonee does, a tough scrounger, although we get hints — she says in passing that “I can’t get arrested again” — of a long career on the other side of the drainage ditch. It’s a heartbreaking world, and a hard one, set in a place that charges by the day because that’s how life is lived.
THE EX-PRESS, November 6, 2017
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