Director: Sean Baker Starring: Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones Runtime: 115 Minutes
For decades, Disney World Florida has served as a cornerstone of childhoods and imaginations across the globe. Every year millions of visitors flood its ticket booths in search of the infamous “magic” that Disney has to offer. Within the park’s walls, guests are welcomed to a world unlike their own: castles stretch to dizzying heights, magnificent firework displays light up the night sky, and fairytales come to life before your very eyes.
Beyond its boundaries, however, the same magic and wonder is harder to find. In the theme park’s shadows, strip malls, run-down hotels and sun-drenched swampland stretch for miles. The families in the encompassing areas struggle to hold onto what little they have. It is in this economic wasteland that the modern face of homelessness shows itself. Families move desperately from hotel to hotel in search of permanent accommodation. Rising rents determine what little luxuries they can afford. Jobs are hard to come by.
It is this world, however, that 6-year old Moonee and her friends embrace as their own private wonderland. On the margins of Disneyland and, indeed, of life, the young children search for magic around every corner, oblivious to the harsh reality of their circumstances.
The Florida Project follows the story of Moonee (Prince) and her young mother Halley (Vinaite) throughout the course of a summer they spend at a budget hotel named ‘The Magic Castle’. The hotel, managed by the strict yet compassionate Bobby (Dafoe), caters to those families who are down on their luck. Despite her surroundings, a defiant Moonee goes about her summer in search of the wonderful world she knows exists. As Moonee and her friends explore the world around them, the severity of their situation deepens as Halley struggles to provide for her family and turns to dangerous means in order to make ends meet.
Similarly to his previous project Tangerine, director Sean Baker has cast his film in an unusual way. Instead of the multitude of actors that would have lined up to be in his next project, Baker opted for relatively unknown actors and real people to embody the roles he had created. Bria Vinaite, Moonee’s mother, was discovered via an Instagram post that one of Baker’s friends shared with him, while many of the child actors had never previously stared in films.
This daring tactic truly speaks to the type of filmmaker Baker is and the world he creates for his movies. There is an authenticity to The Florida Project that is difficult to come by in other films, where stories don’t just unfold. Instead, you live with the characters, get to know them and ultimately endure their heartbreak with them. Baker’s ability to command such fantastic performances from his cast again speaks to his talents as a director.
However, Vinaite and Prince seem like natural stars. The wonderful on-screen chemistry they share allows for the audience sit with them through their moments of elation and joy, as well as the devastating circumstances under which they spend their summer at ‘The Magic Castle’. This relationship truly offers a window through which the audience can peer into the lives of those experiencing struggles similar to Halley and Moonee’s. Willem Dafoe (obviously not one of those unknown actors!) is remarkable as the hotel manager, Bobby. On the outside, Bobby is a stern, strict worker looking to impress his boss and run the hotel as effectively as possible. However, beneath this exterior he is a compassionate, genuine and sweet man who guides and protects the children throughout the summer. Dafoe demonstrates the various layers of his character impressively and easily gives one of the best performances of the year and of his long, remarkable career.
The Florida Project has a vibrancy and energy that, considering the subject matter, almost feels like it shouldn’t. However, Baker’s film is almost always shown through the eyes of Moonee and her friends, all of whom average around 6 years of age. As such, the reality of their situation evades them as they run amok on the hotel’s grounds making new friends and enjoying the summer sunshine. Baker attempts to communicate the resilient power of a child’s imagination, and succeeds in doing so. In a touching scene, Moonee brings her friend to a nearby field in order to stare at cows, remarking “I took you on a safari” – a simple, yet wonderful note on the innocence and imagination of the children.
As we view most of the film through their eyes, the camera’s attention is drawn to the striking imagery that surrounds the children. The hotels are painted in an array of vibrant colours, with names such as ‘The Magic Castle’ and ‘Futureland’. The nearby sweetshop is shaped like an ice-cream cone, while a giant, preposterous-looking wizard sits atop the local gift shop. While the reality is that these have been designed to attract Disney World guests, the children accept them as part of their everyday surroundings, as if giant wizards and ice-cream cones were magical, everyday structures. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe impressively captures these sites, and more, in the mesmerising Florida sunlight, aiding in Baker’s efforts to craft an authentic world for his story.
While we spend the majority of our time on these wondrous adventures, The Florida Project never attempts to sensationalise the issue of homelessness or the problems that these families face. By telling the story through the children’s perspectives, one of the main messages of the film is simply and effectively communicated – reality can corrupt the innocence of childhood. The film is sympathetic to its characters’ struggles and how the children are affected. As Moonee remarks in the film, she is able to see the issues surrounding her, but perhaps not fully understand them: “I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”
As helicopters transporting important guests fly over head, Halley and Moonee attempt to earn their living on the fringe of Disney World, flogging perfume and stollen tickets to the theme park’s visitors. In a poignant scene, Moonee, her mother and her friend stare above them as the famous Disney World fireworks light up the night sky. While the sky has been rented out for the enjoyment of others, the fireworks strangely seem to face away from them, as they stare in awe of the magic that they are not able to experience first-hand.
The Florida Project is an absolutely mesmerising film. This colourful and vibrant masterpiece is an ode to the innocence and magic of childhood in the face of difficult realities. To call it an important film is an understatement – the new face of homelessness (being experienced across the world) is explored in vivid detail and with true compassion for the struggles that accompany it. As the old saying goes: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll absolutely adore every second of it.
The Florida Project is a wonderful, wonderful film.(5 / 5)