This world has never suffered from an overabundance of empathy. Even when we’re trying to be kind, we have a bad habit of falling back on judgment and condescension, of projecting our own issues and beliefs onto the decisions of others.
So when something like The Florida Project comes along, it feels all the more remarkable.
In his last film, Tangerine, director Sean Baker chronicled a night in the life of two trans sex workers, just blocks away but a world removed from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
In The Florida Project, Baker bypasses Orlando’s famous Disney resorts for its outskirts, setting up shop in a run-down motel on the outskirts. It’s called the Magic Castle, but there’s nothing really magical about it. Indeed, it’s the kind of place that might drive a couple of middle-class honeymooners to tears when they discover they’ve accidentally booked a room there instead of the Magic Kingdom.
But to six-year-old Moonee, it’s just home. She’s a semi-permanent resident there, sharing a room with her 22-year-old single mom, Halley. Halley’s love for her daughter is never in doubt, and if that were enough to raise a kid on, Moonee would be the luckiest kid in the world. In a reality where bills must be paid, however, Halley’s inability to hold down a steady job puts this little family on a shaky foundation.
It’d be fair to say that nothing really “happens” for large swaths of The Florida Project, but “nothing happens” here in the same way that “nothing happens” in real life. (Or in Boyhood, another film that presented life as a series of little and big moments.) There’s no obvious narrative arc for most of the movie, just the everyday rhythm of life with Moonee.
The first time we meet her, she’s screaming at the top of her lungs to a friend who lives just down the road, before going off to spit on a stranger’s parked car. Not out of malice or anything like that, but just because they’re kids, and it’s summer, and they don’t have anything better to do.
Tomorrow will be yet another summer day full of nothing to do, so Moonee and her friends might badger locals for money to buy ice cream, or explore an abandoned home full of mirrors to break and walls to smash. It’s a sweet, sticky life, and Baker employs a kid’s-level perspective to let you live it with Moonee.
Gradually, though, a darkness starts to creep in around the edges, as Halley’s unemployment makes it harder and harder to keep Moonee’s world intact.
As Moonee, Brooklynn Prince is a revelation. There’s not a single artificial note in her performance, just raw charm. Together, Baker and Prince make it achingly clear what Moonee knows, and what Moonee doesn’t know, and what Moonee doesn’t think she knows but can somehow sense all the same. Equally good is Bria Vinaite as Halley, a generally easygoing soul that life keeps trying to push toward desperation.
Both actresses are first-timers, which might account for how real they feel – but Baker also gets a fantastically naturalistic performance out of Dafoe, the manager of the Magic Castle. He’s as tough as he needs to be, but he’s not without sympathy for his residents, and even steps up as their protector on occasion. People like him help shield Moonee from some of the harshest realities this world has to offer, even in a place as downtrodden as the Magic Castle.
The Florida Project is a film about people in poverty, but with the emphasis on the “people.” This isn’t misery porn. It resists the temptation to condemn or mock these characters on the one hand, and to idealize them on the other.
The Florida Project just lets them be, in all the beauty and idiosyncracy and fucked-upness that that entails. The world could use more films like it.