The Florida Project (2017)
Sean Baker, director of “Tangerine” (2015), has produced something special – a powerful, unforgettable film about the innocence, joys, freedoms and wonders of childhood played out in the context of social and economic exclusion in Florida, US. “The Florida Project” has been very unjustly ignored by the Academy in the forthcoming Best Picture Oscar race, an omission which is incomprehensible. “The Florida Project” is about a little girl Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a simple motel with a big name “The Magic Castle” overshadowed by a large Disney resort. Moonee goes on happily with her daily activities full of wonder and mischief, barely registering the true hardship and deprivation which stalk economically-disadvantaged in the area.
“The Florida Project” starts with a childish mischief: Moonee and her friends are caught spitting on a neighbour’s car near the rooms they live in. Alarm is raised and Moonee’s mother Halley is summoned by the neighbour to rectify the “wrong” and wipe the car anew with paper towels. When one does not fully realise certain hardships, such as being behind rent payments, or does not dwell on them, one can find true joys in the most ordinary and mundane of tasks. Hence, even the punishment of cleaning someone else’s car turns into an interesting game of playing with water for Moonee and her friends. Unconcerned children are only too happy to oblige and clean the car, whereas one wronged parent obviously desires that the task be as punishing and demeaning as possible in order to teach the kids a lesson. These situations define this film, and there is no linear plot as such as we follow Moonee and her friends around the motel.
The fascinating thing is that we are presented with the point of view of a child and see the world as Moonee sees it. Therefore, the world is not about bad people around or broader social consequences of living in the motel, but about simple pleasures of running in the rain, eating ice-cream, watching rainbows, playing hide-and-seek and just enjoying time with close friends. Even though the film’s beginning may not be convincing, in one hour and thirty minutes, we become so emotionally involved with the lives of the children in the motel, that everything that is going on in the last twenty minutes has abnormal significance and power.
It is thanks to the child actors that “The Florida Project” is what it is – perhaps an unassuming and unconventional film, but also very inspirational with a tremendous power to move. Apart from Moonee played by Brooklynn Prince, there are also Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Dicky (Aiden Malik) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a gang of children who are always running wild and up to some mischief, that sometimes transpires into more serious incidents. Alexis Zabe, cinematographer, commented that the whole approach to the movie was to let child actors be themselves and do their own thing, and this approach definitely paid off. Without any real cinematic control, it is fascinating to see children being children, and there is a real contrast between – still a bit self-conscious and tense adults in cinema frames and joyful and carefree children who are completely at ease in front of the camera.
Another vivid character in the film is Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe (“Antichrist” (2009)), the manager of the motel where Moonee and her friends live. The interesting thing here is that in the beginning we do not know how to view Bobby, but we soon realise that, even though Bobby is strict, he is also very protective. He is simply trying to make his own ends meet (his motel cannot even afford a vermin extermination specialist), while he also attempts to subdue one gang of mischievous, street-wise children and to handle their pranks. It is on Bobby that the unpleasant duty of enforcing evictions falls, and, since his clientele is not affluent, he has to maintain the appearance of a tough individual, even though we can still feel an understanding and good heart within.
As the film nears its ending, we can feel only sympathy for Moonee and her familial situation, because it is impossible not to fall in love with such a charming and free-spirited child as Moonee. There is, in fact, plenty of worry arising. Moonee’s mother surely loves her child, but she can also be quick-tempered and is not exactly an ideal role model for a child. Imitating her mother, who sports a blue hair and many tattoos, Moonee even starts to display the same hardcore attitude. Near the Disneyland resort, poverty and affluence live side by side, and, even though childhood perceptions seek goodness and joy everywhere, free food is still delivered to the motel, motel residents struggle to live debt-free, and Moonee’s mother has to turn to imaginative techniques, like reselling perfume, to keep a roof over her and Moonee’s heads. In that way, Moonee becomes the innocent victim of her circumstances and desperately needs the kind protection from the harsh realities of life.
The colour is so effectively used in “The Florida Project” that it warrants a special mention. There is a big contrast between the candy-floss coloured motel and the brightly coloured clothes of its residents, and the dark poverty and other deprivations that are unconsciously present within the walls of the motel. Moonie may be forgiven for fantasising she lives in a dream Barbie house, and the true context of her situation is agonising. Here are the families living just next door to a big colourful money-making machine or Disneyland, and they barely survive on their junk food locked in claustrophobic apartments away from sight.
Baker’s film is not without its problems. It is too long for its plot, and there is this feeling that the audience is being presented with the rosy picture of the socially excluded and economically disadvantaged people in the area (for example, seeing how neatly dressed the children in the film are and their unrealistically expansive vocabulary). However, it should be borne in mind that Baker does not present to us a documentary on poor children in the US (see for example a UK equivalent here), but a film which has to possess a certain degree of style and aesthetics to be appealing, and which simply has much in common with documentaries (since it used an iPhone camera, etc). “The Florida Project” may not present us with the poverty and social and economic deprivation, but it still presents us with a thought-provoking social situation that, despite everything, has its inspirational moments and people who are full of the joy of being.
“The Florida Project” is a fascinating tale of a side of the US we do not normally see in American films. All praise should go to Sean Baker for illuminating some pressing social issues, and giving voice to those who are too conveniently left ignored in the society. More than this, the film is a lovely ode to carefree childhood, and, being such, the film is very relatable and moving. The power of the film also lies with its actors; especially with lovable Prince who does a grown-up actor’s job of carrying nearly the whole movie on her shoulders, and with Dafoe’s convincing turn as the motel manager. 9/10