“What are you playing?”
It’s hard not to think about another A24-produced film while watching Sean Baker‘s The Florida Project. The themes it presents as its impoverished central characters barely scrape by financially on a day-to-day basis are identical to those in Andrea Arnold‘s American Honey and its band of twenty-somethings traveling the countryside to scam cash in return for a no-strings-attached freedom that slaves to a weekly paycheck simply cannot understand. Whereas the latter focused upon adults who have chosen this life, Baker’s look at an Orlando motel turned off-the-books permanent residence unfolds from the point of view of children. They don’t quite comprehend either their parents’ struggle or the life of excess and entertainment down the road at Disney World. Instead, they simply find the joy and fun in what they have.
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch therefore create an intriguing juxtaposition as far as presenting the unbridled frivolity of youth against the kind of backdrop child services would seek to dismantle on principle sight unseen. This setting known as The Magic Castle introduces itself as a commune of sorts, a haven for the misfits, degenerates, and—more often than not—innocent souls caught in a rut that society has forsaken as collateral damage to their American Dream. When one single parent has to work, another watches his/her kids. And when in search of a little peace and quiet to themselves, they send their children off to play. It could be to the neighboring motel complex or a local ice cream stand to panhandle for change. Kids will be kids.
Much like the director’s previous film Tangerine, The Florida Project seeks authenticity in its slice of life presentation and “non-professional” performances. This one rejects any sort of main plot beyond the circumstances themselves and thus provides constant fluidity to both the character dynamics and hard truths caught in the periphery of Moonee’s (Brooklynn Prince) impulsive and endearing existence. This six-year old is a ringleader of sorts, egging on her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera)—whose mother (Mela Murder‘s Ahsley) is BFFs with hers (Bria Vinaite‘s Halley)—and whomever else will join them to spit on cars, light fires, and wreak havoc on motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). She puts the more reserved Jancey (Valeria Cotto) under her wing, exposing her to the boredom-free wonders lax parenting supplies.
But while Moonee is far from innocent, her actions are devoid of malice. She’s adopted many bad traits from Halley, yet that influence comes across as a harmless try-hard reaction to a lack of discipline without adult context. We laugh and smile when she swears or feigns ignorance because she’s just a sassy six-year old running around as though she owns the place. This is an intentional reaction because the more we start caring for this singular bright light within an otherwise murky world, the more we begin to separate her view of what’s happening from reality. We know what those “bathing suit selfies” are for. We know why Baker continuously shows Moonee in the tub alone. Just because she’s removed from horror doesn’t mean it’s not there.
That’s a delicate line to balance. It would be easy to overpower all youthful exuberance with the over-arching sense of futility behind it and vice versa, but Baker doesn’t fall prey to such clichés. He isn’t showing us these things as a way to manipulate. He’s not blatantly tugging at our heartstrings to pity the adults onscreen. You might be in tears by the end because of the unfortunate turn of events that occurs, but Halley and Moonee’s trajectories show none of their strings. Every little aside you believe was included for a nice laugh is eventually revealed to hold a lot more importance once the wheels come off. These “gags” are funny because of Moonee’s presence, but they also show Halley’s desperation and Bobby’s genuine paternal instincts.
He is an obvious standout: this put upon employee who sincerely cares about the wellbeing of everyone that lives in his rooms. His Bobby has as much empathy and compassion for those who need a break as hardline attitude when pushed too far. They respect him even if they don’t always curb their boiling rage misdirected his way when he does something they don’t like despite his actions proving very fair considering. And just as he maintains the establishment’s infrastructure, so too must he serve as referee to any conflicts occurring within. This could mean playing savior when the power goes out, bad cop when topless sunbather Gloria (Sandy Kane) ignores pool rules, or bona fide hero when a shady figure enters the property to converse with children.
Bobby is protector to all and therefore quick to give the benefit of the doubt so long as transgressions don’t continue. He still has to look out for the business and himself as well as the innocent kids trapped within a world they’ve done nothing to deserve, but he’ll cut Halley some slack when necessary and she acknowledges as much too. Unfortunately for her, he isn’t the only person in a position to cause trouble and she isn’t the easiest to deal with when feeling slighted. Vinaite embodies the role with an honesty that can be difficult to watch since her mistakes impact young Moonee too. What begins under an atmosphere of positivity—the kids’ glee proving universally contagious—ultimately reveals such escapism as a rapidly dissolving façade.
It’s a transition that’s as noticeable on little Brooklyn Prince’s face as it is in the background violence and crime. This is a girl who appears able to brush horrible things off as though she’s coated with Teflon and yet even she can’t ignore the emptiness creeping in when everything she’s ever known risks pulling apart at the seams. While the places Baker takes us are inevitable on paper, they still shock and surprise because of how sympathetic and full of life his characters prove. We are desperate for a happily ever after despite knowing how rare those are in a community like The Magic Castle. All we can hope to witness instead is proof that Moonee isn’t yet so immovably broken as the tragic mother she idolizes.
Rating: R | Runtime: 115 minutes | Release Date: October 6th, 2017 (USA)
Director(s): Sean Baker
Writer(s): Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch