Childhood innocence flows free through the rooms, parking lot, and surrounding areas of an Orlando dive motel in Sean Baker’s bristling, beautiful The Florida Project, which provides a deeply humanist look at how poverty reigns on the outskirts of a major vacation destination. Often positioning the camera at eye-level with six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, a rip-your-heart-out revelation), Baker eschews plot in favour of a looser snapshot approach that lets us inhabit the onscreen spaces with a touching, turbulent sense of nonjudgmental authenticity.
That lack of judgement is a major reason that the movie feels so compellingly commendable. It would be easy to look down on Moonee’s foul-mouthed twentysomething mom Halley (Bria Vinaite, a force), who refuses to seek legal employment and instead makes ends meet by selling her body through online ads and hocking wholesale products to well-off tourists on the street, but Baker and Vinaite imbue the character with such love for her daughter that we can clearly comprehend the honest good in her.
Halley is given practically no backstory, meaning that Baker doesn’t define her character by any suggested excuses, instead letting her simply speak for herself in the here and now. We can envision a hard life before this, a dark past, but the actual answer to the question of what brought Halley and Moonee to this point is left to our own imaginations. Vinaite and Baker know that our potential emotional investment in the movie hinges on how much we care about Halley’s predicament that she apparently enjoys wallowing in, but this doesn’t mean they’re going to give the character a cleanly redemptive arc.
The approach is always to sympathize without softening. Halley is immature and angry and lonely and she treats nearly everyone around her quite horribly, except Moonee. That’s the constant, the one thing in her life that she seems determined to do right by in her own strange, sad way. Vinaite, who was discovered by Baker on Instagram, lends Halley an unpredictably brash bravado that hints at the pieces of her past that have steeled her so resolutely while revealing next to nothing.
All we know for sure is how much she cares about her daughter, which allows Baker to keep a crucial dramatic spark alive. For all of Halley’s antics and issues, she never complains about Moonee, never reflects on the lesser responsibilities of her pre-parenting days. She appears to love being a mother, as challenging as her life now is, and that places The Florida Project in unique territory for this tale of unbridled youth.
Movies about children let loose on their own adventures often either blame uncaring, absent parents or ignore the parental units altogether. Baker’s movie is quite the opposite, though. Each significant child character is assigned a single parent that is present throughout the whole narrative. While Baker is painting a portrait of kids making the most of their meager surroundings over a penniless summer break, he’s equally interested in chronicling the attempts of specifically three mothers to steer their children (or grandchildren, in one case) towards something resembling the right direction.
These relationships are further examined through the exasperated efforts of motel manager and father figure Bobby (Willem Dafoe, a recognizable face that blends seamlessly with the many unknown performers). Trying tirelessly to keep the peace in the area while adhering to upper management’s various rules, Bobby becomes a protector for the troubled denizens of his pastel purple palace. Dafoe’s presence is warm and inviting and he navigates the pitfalls of his myriad responsibilities with an endearing pleasantness that is both funny and sweet.
Bobby has arguably more backstory than anyone in the movie and it’s still only a shred of info, a couple quick lines that tell us he’s not on amicable terms with his ex-wife and only able to spend time with his adult son when he ropes him into physical labour involving mattresses and ice machines. Baker is an expert at acknowledging the troubles of one’s past without ever fully naming them.
Everyone whose life orbits around the motel has a story to tell, but we’re privy to so little of their history and that allows the actors to create these convincing portraits of people that we’re truly meeting for the first time. They never feel constructed from a grab-bag of traits or clichés; they’re fully realized as believable beings simply trying to get by. The lives of many others pass through the narrative at random junctures, providing both comical and sobering reminders of how this world that marks a dreary home for these people we now know is instead a dreamy destination for wealthier others attending Walt Disney World in droves.
Baker attends to all of these pieces, concepts, characters in a balanced manner that feels fair and honest. The comedy never overshadows the grimness of the situation and the darkly dramatic turns never lose sight of the refreshingly free flavour. Shots and scenes have a habit of lasting just the right amount of time, wherein moving moments are captured with immediacy and other happenings are merely suggested in the periphery. Much is communicated by saying very little.
Above all, the movie succeeds because of its big beating heart that bounces across the screen in the form of Moonee. Prince’s performance is a natural cannon blast meant to obliterate our heartstrings and she carries much of the movie on her pint-sized shoulders with apparent ease. So much charisma in such a tiny package. She takes us on quite the emotional ride.
For a closing statement, Baker executes an exhilarating final sequence (the only part of the movie that is traditionally scored), taking a desperate detour into somewhat fantastical territory to let a little light shine in when the story is at its darkest point. It’s an extremely powerful finish that poignantly quenches Moonee’s thirst for adventure while ironically underscoring the harsh reality that the little girl’s world is about to drastically change.
Baker isn’t sentimental enough to open the floodgates of hope, nor is he so callous to double down on the tragedy and close the door on any sort of future happiness. Instead, he lets merely a sliver in, just enough that it’s tangible and there for Moonee to grasp. He leaves us floating over the thinnest of hopeful veneers, aware that the bottom still threatens to give way, but thankful all the same that Moonee’s journey, however dark and depressing its details may be, is ultimately defined by love and the dream that there’s a better, brighter tomorrow.