For Disney the “Florida project” was the utopian dream that blossomed into the money-spinning Walt Disney World. By contrast, the run-down motels of Sean Baker’s summer-break drama are more like “projects” in the US welfare-housing sense – home to low-income families living a hand-to-mouth existence, just beyond the boundaries of the upmarket tourist attractions.
Located in Kissimmee, which lies east of Eden on Route 192, these gaudily hued establishments have names like the Magic Castle and Futureland, evoking a dream of fun, fantasy and adventure that is jarringly at odds with harsh economic realities. Purple and yellow paint jobs can’t disguise the fact that many of the residents are in the red, struggling to pay rent, intermittently ousted from their rooms to avoid possible claims of residency. Yet the fairytale is still very much alive for the kids at the centre of this thrillingly vibrant film, As Kool and the Gang’s anthemic song Celebration reminds us at the outset, there are good times amid these hard times.
Six-year-old Moonee (played by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives in the Magic Castle with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite who was discovered by Baker on instagram), a dancer and chancer who makes ends meet any way she can – hawking wholesale perfume to rich resort customers, stealing theme park-entry passes from wide-eyed tourists, and more. Meanwhile Moonee and her trusty sidekick Scooty (Christopher Rivera) take time out from spit-bombing parked cars to befriend new kid on the block Jancey (played by Valeria Cotto). Together, they show Jancey around their wonderland home, taking us on a guided tour of the motel’s corridors, lifts and rooms (“the man who lives in here gets arrested a lot”), scamming ice-cream from the local Twistee Treat parlour (“The doctor says we have asthma and we gotta eat ice-cream right away!”), and occasionally shutting off the motel’s power supply for rascally giggles.
For motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) these troublemakers are a headache, but a streak of protective paternalism shines through his world-weary facade, ensuring that he’s always got their backs. Though Halley sometimes seems like a child herself (“This is so much better than TV!” she squeals when a nearby building catches fire), there’s no doubting her love for her daughter, to whom she is utterly devoted. As for Moonee, she’s watched and learned from her mum’s streetwise sass, talking and acting more like a 20-year-old than an under-10, and insisting: “I can always tell when adults are about to cry.” All of which makes it all the more shocking when her own game-face briefly breaks into tears, and we are reminded just how young she really is.
Protecting Moonee from these more frightening elements is the final, and most crucial, part of the world Baker has created: Bobby, the good-hearted proprietor of The Magic Castle, which might be the finest role of Dafoe’s storied career. Bobby is a quasi-protector, quasi-enforcer for Moonee, always there to scold her for her latest infraction, but also quietly trying to make sure she’s as safe as possible given the circumstances. Dafoe grounds his performance in the same tone of his non-professional colleagues—he comes off like an understated and deeply empathetic presence, not a movie star dropping into a small-budget indie.
As The Florida Project progresses, Baker’s narrative twists don’t grow belabored; just as he acknowledges the sweeter dimensions of Moonee’s world, he also pushes in on the challenging ones with the same honesty. His overall approach makes the film easier to stick with when the going gets rough; it’s a “message movie” that wants to win its audience over with the truthfulness of its characters. Thanks to a handful of mesmerizing performances and Baker’s deft directing, The Florida Project is a must-see work—and one of the year’s best films.