The adults of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project are struggling; living in poverty and trying to provide for their families however they can. The children of The Florida Project are oblivious to this, and find delight in everything they do. By capturing these two alternate perspectives on the same situation Baker has made something truly special – a film that encapsulates both the innocence of childhood and the realisation that parents are people, a realisation that changes how you perceive certain memories of your youth.
For much of The Florida Project we see the world through the eyes of six-year-old Moonee as she roams, unsupervised, around the Orlando streets and the halls of the decrepit motel she lives in with her single mother, Halley. Halley is recently unemployed and regularly self-destructive, and while her love for her daughter is clear she seems unconcerned with how her own actions influence Moonee’s own behaviour. The responsibility of watching over Moonee instead usually falls to the manager of the ‘Magic Kingdom’ motel they’re staying in, Bobby, who also reluctantly looks after Halley however he can. Only an actor like Willem Dafoe could portray both Bobby’s gruff exterior and sympathetic heart so believably, depicting a man who can’t seem to stop himself from protecting those under his care even when they frequently disappoint him. Newcomers Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite bring to their performances as Moonee and Halley a naturalism that’s rare to find on screen. Moonee’s glee at the most mundane of activities feels as if Prince herself was simply having fun making this film, giving The Florida Project lightness and joy despite the bleak circumstances of the setting. Vinaite is astonishing as Halley, demonstrating an acquired toughness that prevents her from acknowledging any weakness or fault even as she loses control of her life, lashing out at those around her because she cannot accept responsibility for herself. Put together, the three characters form a sort of Id, Ego, and Superego – with Bobby’s maturity contrasting Moonee’s childish impulsivity while Halley struggles to play the parent. What The Florida Project lacks in terms of a traditional story it more than makes up for through the richness of the characters and the manner in which it explores its setting, using the grimy and lurid tourist traps just outside of Disney World to critique the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
The Florida Project is a film of contrasts – contrasting the rich with the poor, childhood and adulthood, and maturity with immaturity. Multiple scenes contain double meanings, depicted as playful or innocuous from Moonee’s perspective while as an audience we realise the true nature of what is occurring. One remarkable scene involves Bobby leading a lecherous predator away from where the local children are playing, forcibly removing the man from the premises while the kids remain oblivious. Other moments seem harmless at first and are only revealed to be masking darker meanings later on in the film, as the innocence suggested by The Florida Project’s child protagonist falls away as the film goes on to reveal a sharply focused social commentary.
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch usually leave the influence of Disney and other mega corporations unstated, preferring to focus on the immediate concerns of their characters, but their impact on the lives of those living a stone’s throw from Disney World resort is unmistakable. Yet Baker doesn’t just simply criticise Disney’s over-commercialisation and how it can swallow up those in the lower class. The Florida Project also demonstrates how, in the eyes of a child, there’s no greater representation of imagination and freedom than Disney World, even if the magic fades as we reach adulthood.