The Florida Project follows six-year-old Moonee, her friends, and her mother Halley, as they all navigate living in a careless yet colourful world.
The Magic Castle Inn & Suites appears as your average budget motel in close proximity to Disney World Florida. There are children hiding under the stairwell, shouting, and being playful with whoever passes by. Resplendent purple beams across the entire parking lot from the outside of each motel door, wall, and even the roadside curb. Room 323 is home to one of those scheming kids, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who resides there with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) for all but one night each month. Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee’s friend, and his mother Ashley (Mela Murder) live below them. The motel is managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is quiet yet understanding.
As it is summer, Moonee and her friends are always roaming around, spending the weeks off of school as any child would. They go on little adventures, passing by other motels, ice cream trucks, and Disney merchandise stores, all within walking distance. Moonee is flamboyant, and acts without a care in the world. Her traits come mostly from her mother Halley, who seems to be carefree in everything she does. Moonee and Halley’s relationship is very sister-like. Halley is a young mother and finds peace in being a rebel with her daughter. Together, they convince tourists to buy cheap perfume for $20 so that Halley can pay her way through the $38 a night residency at the motel.
When selling perfume isn’t cutting it, and free meals from neighbour Ashley are cut off, Halley must turn to other ways of making money. Moonee is shut in the bathroom whilst Halley turns to sex work. Moonee is oblivious to what is going on next door and plays with her toys in the bath. Halley steals a client’s Disney passes with intentions of selling them on for cash, but when the client returns, demanding the passes be given back, it causes a scene. Bobby tells Halley to not have people over anymore or she will risk eviction, and is left with no choice but to apologise to Ashley and ask for money. This blows up in Halley’s face, and the next day, child services are on the doorstep of room 323.
We see The Florida Project directly through the eyes of the children, and not through the viewpoint of the adults. Not only is this engaging, but it adds a wholesome view on the desperate times that everyone is suffering through. At the end of the film, when Moonee and her newest friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) run off into the distance at Disney, it is left completely up to interpretation. Jancey lives at the Futureland Inn, the neighbouring motel to The Magic Castle. When things go sour between Halley and child services, Moonee finds herself straight at Jancey’s front door. I would like to think Moonee got a happy ending and was able to live in Disney forever, channelling her endless innocence. Young minds need to be set free every once in a while. When we’re allowed to follow the film from this particular perspective, we’re directed to look for hope in every place possible. Maybe Halley will always be a rebellious mother, but Moonee looks up to her and sees her in a positive light.
Different hues of green and purple disseminate the screen during The Florida Project. The contrast of green is significantly distinct, especially as the film is set mainly around the motel which is brimming with the colour purple. Moonee and her friends play in the emerald green fields between different coloured motels, running their fingers through the strands of grass as they walk to their next mission. Halley’s bathroom is green and turquoise, matching her washed out teal hair. The disparity between the two is that the children are young and open minded, overflowing with innocence, and able to go out and explore the realms of Florida. Whereas Halley, as good of a mother as she believes she is, her green is trapped within the motel walls. She does not have the escape that the children do. The purple paint on the walls of the Magic Castle hides how hopeless living in poverty can be. You often don’t see how dire some people have it as their lives are overshadowed by a bright positive colour palette. But stories like this are real.
Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project, is no stranger to focusing on stories of small town real life. Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch, who he has worked with on several features now, are the ultimate duo. Starlet, Baker’s first feature, examines an unlikely friendship that blooms between a 21 year old and an elderly woman. Tangerine, released in 2015, shows us a detailed insight into a sex workers Christmas Eve, which was shot on three iPhone 5s’s. Newly released Red Rocket, Baker’s latest directorial work, is quite possibly one of the best features of the year. Red Rocket attracts the audience into an ex porn star’s private life in an authentic look at a dysfunctional friendship between a teenager and hometown returnee Mikey Saber (Simon Rex). It is mesmerizingly good. These films may not seem like the most entertaining per say just from a single line synopsis, but are some of the most engaging pieces of film to date. You become enthralled in these characters’ ordinary lives, and whilst doing so, you get to understand your own place in society.
Bria Vinaite was scouted for the role of Halley from Instagram, similarly to the way Baker cast the ensemble of Tangerine via online media platforms. Her previous experience was very limited, but the chance Baker took on Vinaite proved to be an incredible choice. Child actor Brooklynn Prince also had a short history in front of the screen, but was still more experienced than Vinaite. Baker revealed in in an interview at the end of 2017 for Letterboxd that as soon as Vinaite and Prince met they hit it off, and had an instant connection. It’s rare for Baker to cast a known actor like Willem Dafoe in his social realist filmography. But Defoe encapsulated his role as the manager of a motel beautifully, so much so he got a deserving Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The Florida Project summarises so many thoughts and feelings children go through whilst living in such a careless world. Baker and Bergoch are such talented writers, who scour the internet to find so many gifted actors hiding in plain sight. Through breathtaking 35mm footage, and a heartbreaking yet hopeful storyline, we get to observe a reality that we’re not too familiar with seeing on screen. It’s films like these that allow us to see the world from all angles.
The Florida Project is now available to watch on digital and on demand.