OH WHAT A magnificent movie.
The story follows -in that affectless, naturalistic style of the under-awarded “American Honey”- a giggle of 7-8 year old kids, who are having a thoroughly enjoyable time. Life’s a blast. They roam here and there around Future World, an awful, kitsch, almost alien imitation Disney World, as well as the forbidden rooms in their apartment complex: the Magic Castle Motel (“the most magical place in the world”). They explore places, giggle, hustle money for ice cream and, as no doubt all kids do, burn down abandoned apartment blocks.. The world as seen through their wide-eyed innocence is one of all fun and laughter all the time.
It’s a tremendous piece of directing. Director Sean Baker has managed to wrest performances from his young cast (almost all of whom are first timers) that are absolutely spot on. Their ringleader is Moonie (a scene-stealing, compelling Brooklynn Prince). She loves pigging out at diners and at the hotel just down the road; she still has some baby toys and has been taught to take long and leisurely baths while mom, who seems barely out of her teens, turns tricks in their tiny one-room apartment.
Beneath the bubbling happiness of these undisciplined, feral children, the world we glimpse is a dark (if garishly lit) one. It’s a world well beyond the reach of any social safety net, simply the long arm of an indifferent law; and where only a network of relationships (offering filched food) and a separate law of the (urban) jungle are all that keep destitution and despair at bay.
The director/writer team of Baker and Chris Bergoch keep the mood buoyant by their ostensible focus on the naughty kids. It’s almost a tease to the presence of the darker realities that never quite intrude on the fun and games but are unmistakenly there.
Mom is Halle (an engaging Bria Vinaite in her first movie). She’s a pretty young gal, whose mentality seems barely less immature than her daughter’s. We’re made privy that she’s served time, but nothing more… for the movie does away with any attempt to bother with the back stories of its characters. But you can more or less guess hers: knocked up at a tender age; father long gone; no education to speak of…and with only her wits to get her through life. The brilliance of this character is the sense of innocence and naiveté that still manages to live on, despite the sordid reality of the experience.
She (and Moonie…this is a mom and daughter team) con their way into free hotel meals, hustle guests at the hotel to buy “genuine” perfume, steal and then resell Disney tickets, and mom earns some extra cash from casual prostitution to pay for the rent.
In this nowhere world of nowhere people, Robbie (a surprisingly charming, menace-free Willem Dafoe), the downtrodden manager of the apartment block, is the closest thing to a helping hand. Not that he’s much help: he simply goes about his business with compassion and without judgement.
And that’s about as accurate a description you’ll find for this extraordinary portrait of a slice of the American Dream circa 2017. Here is the world’s richest country whose wealth is no more accessible to these citizens than is the Fantasyland just down the road from their neighbourhood. (The Florida Project incidentally was the original name for Disney World)
In the same way that Chris Bergoch’s clever writing doesn’t need a back-story to give his characters depth, we can be pretty sure where their future’s heading. This is a cycle of poverty, pregnancy and prison from which there’ll never be any escape. And, despite the bouncy sunniness of Moonie’s disposition, there’s no doubt about what awaits her as adulthood unfolds.
Baker and Bergoch’s last project was the (apparently) stunningly successful “Tangerine”, a movie about transgender prostitutes shot entirely in situ on i-phones. That guerilla movie making spirit is only evident at the very end when a scene shot in Disney World was done so “unofficially”. A story that began in the faux Disney of Future World ends in the real Disney with its Magic Kingdom slightly out of focus in the background. So this is Baker’s America: a place lived in a fake world where all ambition tilts forever toward a make believe one.
Or maybe we’re simply describing the White House here
THE FLORIDA PROJECT. Dir: Sean Baker. Writer: Baker + Chris Bergoch. With: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones (“Three Billboads Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Cinematographer: Alexis Zabe