Reel Critic: “The Florida Project”

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The Florida Project

The Florida Project

Courtesy of IMDb

Courtesy of IMDb

The Florida Project

By DEVIN McGRATH-CONWELL

“The Florida Project” (2017) follows six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Scooty (Christopher Riviera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) through their summertime adventures among the string of motels in Kissimmee, Florida, just outside Disney World, where they all live. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), leaves her daughter mostly unsupervised, a trend repeated by each of the children’s caretakers. Yet they are not without someone to watch over them, as Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of The Magic Castle, the motel where Moonee and Halley live, acts as a crusty guardian angel. The children and their families are part of the forgotten homeless Americans who may have a roof over their heads week-to-week but have no plans or prospects for long-term housing. Director Sean Baker ushers the viewer into their world, taking an approach most comparable to Richard Linklater with Boyhood (2014), steeping us in the experiences of his characters. In fact, many of the supporting figures in the film are portrayed by actual residents of the motels, blending fact and fiction in this depiction of daily life.

Every directorial decision emphasizes the fact that this is a story about the children that populate this world. Baker’s camera often sits lower than is conventional, following Moonee and her friends as they hide under the stairway at The Magic Castle, a place completely their own because no adult would comfortably fit underneath its arches. The setting itself takes on an almost surreal feel, from the peeling lilac paint of The Magic Castle to the enormous fruit- shaped Orange World (a shop that we imagine specializes in orange related memorabilia). The very existence of a street sign for “Seven Dwarfs Ln.” suggest a child’s slightly mystified view of the world. It is as if Disney World spilled out from the confines of the park and expanded to fill the world around it, but grew only into a demystified image of its former self. Baker relishes the cognitive dissonance in how Disney lords over the narrative while only rarely directly entering in, saving its full debut for a moment I won’t spoil.

In one of his most haunting images, Halley takes Moonee and Jancey to the waterside to watch the park’s fireworks. They are far away and seemingly innumerable motels and freeways lie between them and Disney World. For a moment they sit in darkness, interrupted by the explosions. Under a red-stained sky, the three sit celebrating Jancey’s birthday, but all I could think about was the sheer amount of distance the shot conveyed. Just beyond their view are a multitude of families sitting under the same fireworks, enjoying the privilege of their decadent vacations. Halley and the girls are well aware of them, but there is no indication that those within the park have any idea of what sits just outside their “magic kingdom,” a fact that gave me a sense of profound sadness.

No story about children works without a talented child to anchor it, and the crackling ray of sunshine that is Brooklynn Prince does just that. Prince was only six at the time of filming, the same age as the character that she played, and the expressive range and performative talent she displays is truly remarkable. Giving a tour of The Magic Castle to Jancey, who lives at a neighboring motel, she tells her about each room, from the one with “the woman who thinks she’s married to Jesus” to another with a man who “gets arrested a lot.” Her delivery is natural and metered, with the wrist flicks and flourishes of an excited child showing off her world to someone new. It is shot through with genuine strokes that could easily seem forced, but never do. Baker recognizes what he has with Prince, and capitalizes on it. Near the end of the film, Halley sneaks Moonee and Jancey into a ritzy hotel nearby to take advantage of the continental breakfast, and Baker settles his camera in close-up on Prince as she eats. She lists the foods she’s having, and talks about how ‘pregnant’ she’ll look after breakfast. It is equally adorable and heartbreaking, a young girl finding joy in what many may consider such a small thing.

Hovering over and accenting Prince’s performance is the work turned in by Dafoe as Bobby. Throughout his career, Dafoe has made a name for himself playing memorable supporting roles that elevate the piece they are a part of. The Academy nominated him for his portrayal of the thoughtful and morally grounded Sgt. Elias in “Platoon” (1986), which brought empathy and humanism to the horrors of the Vietnam War. He was not the focus, but his domination of each of his scenes made him one of its most memorable parts. If it were not for the tour-de-force work that Prince delivered here, I believe the same would have held true. That withstanding, Dafoe permeates the story. The children may often see him as spoiling their good fun, but it is with a firm and caring hand that he steers them away from the greatest dangers that could befall them. At one moment, an older gentleman wanders onto the property and begins chatting with the children, who are innocently playing around a pair of picnic tables. Bobby is painting a layer of yellow trim on the motel, but he notices this new figure, and it distracts him enough that he drops the can of paint. We feel his concern mount, and when he walks over to confront the man it is with a smile and a deference that shield bubbling rage as we come to understand the sinister nature of this man’s intentions. Dafoe’s performance makes Bobby inseparable from the motel, and his deep sadness in trying to help these children without being able to save them is palpable.

Watching The Florida Project for me was one of those rare cinematic experiences when I have to remind myself I’m watching a fictional world. The care and precision with which Baker portrays this world is masterful, so that even with its seemingly heightened and carefully chosen details it’s easy to lose yourself within it. Each cast member, with the standouts Prince and Dafoe, seem so deeply woven into this world that all of their motions and lines blend into a work of beauty. There can be no real fairy tale ending for these children, nor for their real life counterparts out in the world, but that does not preclude them from deserving a story of grace and humor.

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Reel Critic: “The Florida Project”