“We’re just playing!”
There’s a scene in The Florida Project that’s so guileless, so utterly uncalculated in its observations that I sat there shaking my head in admiration of its beauty. While out adventuring for the day, 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) says to her friend Jancey, “You know why this is my favorite tree?…’Cause it’s tipped over, and it’s still growing.” She looks at this crooked tree and sees rich character over upright correctness. Kids have a way of seeing things that are typically recognized as ugly and changing them altogether, seeing clear-cut figures where adults only see shapeless clouds, seeing a soon-to-be butterfly when grown-ups only see a caterpillar, and by carrying their instinctual imaginations as if it were a sword to fend off those who’ve succumbed to repetition. Like any child enjoying a summer of freedom, you never quite want The Florida Project to end. When it does, in an ever so bittersweet manner, you’re conflicted. And that’s just what the film sets out to achieve.
Just a stone’s throw away from Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Moonee and her young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live at the Magic Castle motel. This big, light purple building isn’t meant to be a home, but in the film and in actuality, it becomes a sojourn safe space for the kinds of people tourists only come in touch with when those like Halley and Moonee try to solicit goods wrapped with their own inflected sales pitches of pauperdom. You might not want the perfume they’re pawning, but you don’t want to see their upturned and empty pockets either, so you spare what you can. Ask me to describe their lifestyle as succinctly as possible and I’d call it a Happy Meal. It’s a colorful, minuscule, salty life packed with a single toy and a convenient carry-on handle. If the Disney backdrop is equivalent to the associated happiness of McDonald’s symbolic marketing, Halley and Moonee are the workers slaving behind the counter making minimum wage, living off their scraps in the margins of society. It’s heartbreaking to watch, mostly because when you open your blind eyes to the realities around you, its truths become so self-evident that they have a face, a name, and a soul worth knowing.
The Florida Project has a few other characters in tow; some of Moonee’s young friends, a few of Halley’s illicit associates, a couple of people who are acquiesced into providing food and board. But the most important of them all – and I think the glue of the film – is motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). We don’t get much information about this man aside from his generosity and his willingness to grant his residents a second chance. To bend the rules when he knows they’ve been ever so slightly broken. Bobby is this story’s parental eye, the watch-dog who looks out for his own hide, but more often than not spends his days trying to accommodate and work with those who rely on him. When Halley screws up, Bobby is there to call another strike. When Moonee’s ice cream melts in the lobby, he’s there to kick her outside. Bobby knows this game, these people, that more bad things happen here than good. And because Dafoe gives one of the great performances of his career, we see the gentleness in his eyes and softness of his touch to comfort individuals enduring things he’s not only seen before, but likely experienced first-hand. Bobby represents the saints of this life who are determined to make the world a better, prettier, safer place despite the continuous cycle of destruction unfolding as guests come and go and leave without a trace. His is the life of an idealistic conservator, working on little to no commission in an attempt to fill and fix the cracks in the canvas he oversees.
As a whole, The Florida Project’s willingness to remove the camera from the commotion, to cut on a whim, and to observe from a distance shares similarities to Yasujirō Ozu’s later work. It’s also a film that just feels as fatalistic as an early Paul Schrader piece, with its characters’ pursuit of redemption ending in an erratic static instead of a dreamlike stasis. However, most influential on director Sean Baker is the humanistic and populist approach of Kenneth Loach. For Baker – hot off the heels of his vibrant, vivacious, representative debut Tangerine – words seem to matter far less than action. So while he and Loach both write sharp dialogue (or at the very least direct the ad-libbing with assurance), the importance and the impetus of the action is found in the wide-ranging reflections. More discerning and seasoned critics probably caught this, but after reading a THR interview with Baker, I discovered things I initially missed. How Moonee looks at cows instead of the Animal Kingdom, treks through abandoned buildings rather than The Haunted Mansion, and lives in her own quaint Magic Castle. Every step of the way, Baker makes sure to juxtapose their poverty against the unobtainable regality of make-belief kingdoms. Kids are resilient, and Baker reminds us of this fact by allowing Moonee to sneak around and create her own little world for us to jointly explore. Giving a child a cardboard box is to give them possibility.
Through Moonee’s point of view, and no less her partners in crime, this is a Willy Wonka world waiting to be devoured by kids who appreciate the sweetness of sugar and have learned how to remember that teeth-coated feeling of a junk-fueled binge. The buildings look like different concession stand concoctions open at all hours, the skies streaked by cotton candy rainbows. To adults, a rainbow is a mere weather phenomenon. To kids, it’s a siren of potluck riches, and better yet, the possible pursuit of finding where it ends. This explains why for the entire film, all I could think of was Peter Handke’s unforgettable rumination on youth in his piece titled “Song of Childhood,” most memorably featured in Wim Wenders’ masterpiece Wings of Desire. Every word resonates, and the truths beat like snare drums, marching into battle against adulthood and the great fear of boredom. Handke wrote, “When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging, wanted the brook to be a river, the river to be a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea.” For every second of every frame of The Florida Project, Baker uses Handke’s writing to provide insight into a child’s approach to a summer day. Bursting through the door recklessly, sunscreen an after thought, darkness the only call to bring them back home. And with every off-screen sound of a helicopter (coming or going, we do not know) in The Florida Project, we’re reminded where these stowaways reside and where they will likely remain. Not only does this little movie ask broad questions about a certain slice of society, it also takes the time to present its ideas specifically, and it’s truly one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen about what it means to grow up poor in wealth but rich in spirit.
“I can always tell when adults are about to cry.”
Rating: 5 out of 5