Written and directed by: Sean Baker
Look at the poster for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Above a rainbow you’ll see a tagline in small white font: “find your kingdom.” Baker has a knack for producing dark comedies, and in the case of The Florida Project, he’s produced a rainbow-colored dark comedy. The tagline thus serves as an important invitation: an invitation to see the film through the awestruck eyes of its child stars, rather than to simply lament in its misery.
The film tells the story of Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) a 6-year-old girl who lives in a motel with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee is immersed in a small community of her friends: Scooty, Dicky and Jancey (Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malick and Valeria Cotto) who accompany her on adventures. Moonee’s main interests seem to be mischief and breakfast food. Her mischievous-side leads her to have regular run ins with the motels’ sometimes fatherly, sometimes pragmatic and opaque manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and to cause trouble for her mother.
Living just outside of Disneyworld, Moonee is able to lead her friends through a series of quasi-palatial structures: a restaurant/store with a giant orange on top, another store decorated with a giant wizard’s head, and an ice cream-shaped-ice-cream-stand where she can get “free” ice cream. The motel itself is called the magic castle and despite being a rundown “dump,” it still stuns with its faux-turrets and light-purple color. To some degree, these visuals signify Moonee’s childhood naivety. She does not know she lives in poverty because in her head she lives in a castle. That said, the film is clearly one that prides itself in its visuals. Its intent is clearly for audiences to both feel sorry for Moonee and to take genuine pleasure in enjoying her kingdom which stuns despite its desolate, highway location.
Moonee is not the only one who lives in a fantasy world. Her mother Halley also savours the reckless freedom she can find, despite constantly being under pressure to put money together. Many of the perks of Moonee’s kingdom are in fact, put in place by Halley, who facilitates various ways for Moonee to get free breakfast and explore her community. The film emphasizes Halley’s similarty to Moonee, by contrasting Halley with her with her friend Ashley (Mela Murder), a fellow motel-dwelling-young-mother who shows more concern about her kid, Scooty’s, behaviour.Halley is precariously (to put it mildly) employed, and has a penchant for vulgarity that makes it hard for her to win sympathizers.
Unlike Moonee’s story, which permits audiences to separate the beautiful from the tragic, Halley’s story is more thoroughly disheartening. Halley regularly gets herself into trouble as a result of her rebellious, profanity laden speech. While at first Halley’s expletives seem like more adult-versions of Moonee’s gleeful cries of “biatch,” the film eventually makes it apparent that Halley’s vernacular is a deep part of her existence. As Halley’s story becomes more tragic, audiences are forced to struggle with the notion that while Halley could seemingly improve her standing with others by cutting down on the swears, it may in fact be impossible for Halley to speak any other way.
It is the complex nature of Halley’s “wild” behaviour that shapes the tragic side of The Florida Project. Halley’s struggles stem from the fact that the traits that make her a bad mom and good mom are highly inseparable: she feeds her child by stealing, she teaches her child bad manners to protect her from equally obnoxious adults, etc.
Aside from Dafoe, The Florida Project relies on a cast of rookie actors. This use of unknown voices is part of director Sean Baker’s broader vision of telling untold stories. The Florida Project tells the unknown story of impoverished-motel-dwellers, and through Halley it provocatively explores the causes of cycles of poverty. Despite these sombre ambitions, however, the film also tells the (semi-)unknown story of a child’s imagination. In doing so it masterfully presents a product rooted in gritty, tragic realism that in its own way finds its fairy tale happily ever after.