When thinking of Florida, one often associates the state with constant sunshine, beautiful beaches, and an ideal vacation spot. The Florida Project does not focus on these picturesque aspects, but rather on the community of people that live in the realm of shabby motels, tacky souvenir shops, and endless strip malls, while ultimately falling under the shadow of Disney World.
The Florida Project follows the adventures and antics of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a longtime resident of The Magic Castle, which is a beat-down, tacky, and brightly painted purple motel located in Orlando, Florida, only a few miles from the happiest place on earth. For Moonee, The Magic Castle is not any different from The Magic Kingdom and she spends her days roaming the area with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) where they cheerfully annoy their neighbors and the staff of the motel, con tourists for ice cream, and let their imaginations run wild. Moonee is looked after by her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a 20 something young woman who acts more like an older sister to Moonie than her mother. Halley allows Moonee to pretty much do whatever she wants and makes a living in unconventional ways, barely providing for herself and her daughter. A form of solid presence and protection in Moonee’s life is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of The Magic Castle and, although not explicitly stated, deeply cares for the residents of the motel, especially Moonee and Halley. Within the duration of the film, viewers are transported into Moonee’s world and watch with a sense of childlike awe as she ventures through her days.
In the film, there is an interesting balance between two different tone styles and perspectives. Since the film follows a young child, much of the movie is framed in a nonchalant, innocent manner. We see much of the action from Monnee’s eyes and delight in her antics. There is, however, a bleak undertone to the film in tandem with this fun and lighthearted action. The experiences Monnee is living are not normal for a child, especially a kid of her age. We watch Halley as she scrapes by for money, first through selling knockoff perfume to tourists and then through prostituting herself to men. Moonee is also put in danger through her severe lack of supervision. On various accounts, Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey are without any form of adult care, and, in one instance, put themselves in a potentially fatal situation. These dueling tones make the film a joy to watch, while simultaneously filling you with a sense of anxiety because of Moonee and Halley’s increasingly dim situation. Weaving childhood adventure with the dark reality that some individuals face provides a stark contrast to this drama film.
Bobby is one character that is a steady force in Moonee’s life. His compassion is his most prominent quality and we see this gift shine through a variety of moments in the movie. He is fiercely protective of the children who live at the motel, even protecting them from a child predator in one instance. While Halley loves Moonee and supplies her with fun and excitement, Bobby provides more protection and consistency in Moonee’s life, acting as a guardian over her. There is a warmness that Dafoe brings alive in the character that drapes the film in a blanket of warmth. Even though Moonee spends much of her day harassing Bobby and his staff with her mischief, he lends a watchful eye over the girl. He is a quiet, yet forceful individual with pure intentions executed with a full heart.
It is, however, important to note that Halley does desperately care for Moonee. Halley’s young age makes it hard for her to be the most mature person, but she does what she has to do to provide for Moonee and herself. Although she struggles and does not have resources at her disposal, she never once blames Moonee for her circumstances. She simply does her best for her daughter, and even though she is not a perfect parent, she has a strong bond with Moonee that transcends the bad.
One of the most impactful facets of the film is how it brings light to underrepresented communities. The community that is highlighted in The Florida Project is the “hidden homeless” population. Telling the stories of groups of people that are normally ignored is the trademark of director Baker. In his past film Starlet, he documented the lives of porn actors and in Tangerine, he told the stories of two transgender prostitutes. Baker follows this trend of bringing a voice to normally invisible, real communities with his newest film. The families living in The Magic Castle, and other surrounding motels, are all living on the brink of homelessness, and this film brings an insight into this community’s lifestyle.
Overall, The Florida Project does way more than just entertain the audience. It tells a fictional story about a real group of people and evokes emotions ranging from happiness to despair. The story is joyful because it explores childhood bewilderment and adventure, but also takes you into a dismal situation. The final scenes leave you with poignant sadness, but also with a ray of hope. The film is ultimately full of more magic and wonder than you could find through the gates of Disney World itself.