When I was in high school I worked with elementary school aged children. I worked at an after-school program, meant to be a fun place for kids to socialize, play games, and generally have fun. Of course in many cases it was more of a daycare: somewhere parents could leave their kids for a few more hours. Some kids didn’t want to be there. Their constant begging to call their parents and be picked up early would become irritating. But worse than those kids were the ones smart enough to know the position they were in. This wasn’t like school or home, the people had very little leverage. The only real consequence for misbehavior was to get suspended, which is not a scary threat if you don’t want to be there in the first place. These kids knew how to fuck with you. They knew exactly how to get under your skin. If you made one of the various stock empty threats, they’d mock you. When I decided to care as little as they did, they respected me a lot more. (Which meant when things really called for empty threats, they took me more seriously). The Florida Project reminded me of that feeling of powerlessness when confronting someone who has nothing to lose- a particularly frustrating feeling when your intentions are to help that person.
Bobby (Willem Defoe) seems to experience this powerlessness on a daily basis. He’s the manager of The Magic Castle Motel, a misleadingly colorful establishment on the outskirts of Disney World. He does his best to manage the destitute residents, who force him to strike a balance between compassionate patience, and the reality of running a business. Bobby serves as the audience surrogate (at least for audience member’s of a certain class, like myself) in a story that’s really from the perspective of Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), a 6 year old girl. The Florida Project wanders through this child’s boundless summer, drifting from one adventure to the next. Moonee’s young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) sets her up with a vague routine of soliciting free food and hustling wholesale perfume outside of haughty tourist hotels. Otherwise Moonee’s life is chaotic antics with her fellow motel kids Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
Despite the dire circumstances, Moonee never seems unhappy. Her innocent yet shrill exclamations constantly burst out of her mouth, often in unison with her friends (the film is an exhausting, 2 hour, non stop sugar-induced energy blitz). Halley is clearly unable to provide a safe, healthy living environment for her daughter, but the two are good friends. Like with his prior film Tangerine, director Sean Baker finds the earnest love and affection in relationships strained by the difficult realities of poverty. Both films also prove his interest in juxtaposing aesthetically cheerful locations (in Tangerine, sunny LA on Christmas, here at the fringes of Disney World) with dour circumstances. The character’s lives aren’t structured neatly into a narrative. It sometimes feels more like a collection of social realist vignettes than a feature length narrative. Each sequence doesn’t build to a progressive, linear plot, but they do come together as a poignant description of this unique experience.
The film is shot almost entirely with a wide angle lens- exaggerating the space, and warping doorways. The sun soaked cinematography includes a pallette of sickeningly saturated fast food colors. At 115 minutes, with no plot to speak of The Florida Project feels long. Though there is never a dull moment, the aimless, wandering atmosphere is intentional and mostly well executed, eventually becomes redundant. (I remember this being my issue with Tangerine, which felt really long despite its 88 minute runtime.) The lingering is made worth it by a powerhouse ending, which absolutely fantastic performances, as expected from Willem Defoe, but most impressively from the 6 year old star Brooklynn Kimberly Prince. Though the whole final scene is tremendously staged and performed, the film’s very final trick is spoiled by shaky execution and an uncomfortable tonal shift. After near 2 hours of unflinching reality, the hint at a happy ending feels not just out of place, but a bit insincere to the film’s spirit.
I give The Florida Project 8 free continental breakfasts out of 10 boxes of wholesale perfume.