The innocence of childhood can have a conservative streak to it. Kids are perfectly happy with their lives, no matter how bad it gets, as long they do not deviate from routine. It’s not just that children do not know better; they also lack the experience to see beyond what’s in front of them, and how some routines can be corrosive. This tension is at the center of The Florida Project, the remarkable new drama from Sean Baker. This film is a testament to the perseverance of children, and an affecting portrayal of modern poverty. Baker starts by keeping these stories separate, only to have them converge in heartbreaking ways.
Disney World can be the source of a kid’s most cherished memories, yet sprawl and hardship can infect the area beyond the parks. The majority of The Florida Project takes place in a motel nearby Disney World, where an adjacent helicopter pad helps rich tourists skip the traffic. The helicopter is a nagging reminder for those who live at the motel, who would not dare dream of such luxury. A young woman named Halley (Bria Vinaite) lives there semi-permanently with her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is about eight.
Moonee’s days unfold without much supervision: When the film starts, she and her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are spitting on a car for the hell of it. Halley does not think much of the prank, since she treats Moonee more like a sister than a daughter. The only consistent adult man in anyone’s life is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager who empathizes with his guests but has his job, too.
Baker films the motel and surrounding area with oversaturated, gorgeous light. Many of the exteriors are painted in pastels—the motel is a muted shade of pink—and the kids wander over to an ice cream stand that looks like a giant orange. For the first stretch of The Florida Project, the camera is below the waistline of the children, giving the effect that they are always looking upward, gazing in wonder at the world around them. Moonee and Scooty soon recruit Jancey, another kid, played by Valeria Cotto, and through this inseparable trio we start to see how the motel forms a community and economy based on favors and mutual need. All the parents take turns babysitting, while Halley gets free meals from The Waffle House, where Scooty’s mother is a server. This routine suggests a constant state of play, with Bobby acting as a hapless buffoon more than a professional.
As The Florida Project continues, Baker cracks the idyll he created for his young heroes. Halley lost her job as a stripper, so she struggles to come up with weekly rent. A creepy old man tries to talk with the kids and Bobby handles it with remarkable tact (Dafoe is the only recognizable actor among a cast of unknowns, and he plays against type simply by portraying an ordinary, decent man).
The fissures in Moonee’s world are not immediately apparent to her, so they affect her life for reasons she cannot possibly understand. We learn more about Halley, too, seeing how her hands-off parenting style is harmful to a rambunctious kid like her daughter, who needs structure.
Prince’s performance is fearless: Her character has the instinct of someone who has experienced too much pain and rejection, so she lashes out whenever anyone dares to question her choices. Baker never judges Halley, or any of the characters, and instead films their heightened desperation with unwavering empathy. Along with co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch, Baker sugarcoats the children’s playtime, not the drama. Sometimes the transgressive scenes are funny, like when Bobby tries to convince an elderly woman to put her top back on. Soon the comedy gives way to harsh reality, and then there are scenes of sudden violence, filmed with simple, matter-of-fact brutality.
The Florida Project is not just a downer, although parts of it are harrowing. The young lead actors are funny and vivacious, speaking with unaffected charisma and honesty. Baker eschews the precocious wisdom that many filmmakers give their younger characters. In fact, the conversations between Moonee and Scooty seem so natural that it’s not entirely clear how adults could have written such pitch-perfect dialogue for characters that young.
But for all its empathy and verisimilitude, the final scene of The Florida Project may divide audiences. Baker abandons low-key realism for low-key fantasy in a fanciful sequence that ignores the fate of many characters. It’s easy to write off the scene as a cop-out, and yet there is a deeper tragedy that informs the saccharine nature of the film’s final minutes. Moonee cannot see beyond her irrevocably broken routine, and so the limits of her imagination are all she has left.
The Florida Project opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.