Kids make magic in sensitive, sad, moving, magnificent ‘Florida Project’
The Florida Project
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe & Bria Vinaite
Directed by Sean Baker
Purple, it’s said, is the color of royalty, so it suits the young pint-sized princess strutting around her lavender palace in this fractured fairy tale just a couple of wide miles, and a few aching dreams, away from Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
In director Sean Baker’s outstanding slice-of-life The Florida Project, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her ragtag playmates seek fun, friendship, mischief and adventure from their extended-stay homes in low-rent Orlando motels on the strip leading tourists straight into the money-fied maws of Disney. Moonee lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a place called the Magic Castle—getting an unauthorized ride on Disney’s coattails—which the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), has painted top-to-bottom purple.
Bobby’s motel, with its plum-colored walls and faux parapets, fits right in with the other garish attractions on the busy freeway, which include a souvenir shop topped with the giant head of a wizard and a citrus palace called Orange World.
Every day, from a field across the bog, a helicopter repeatedly takes off and lands, whisking tourists away for birds-eye-views of Disney World, Epcot and other wonderful sights.
Baker’s 2015 indie, Tangerine, about a transgender prostitute on the gritty streets of L.A., was shot entirely on iPhones. The Florida Project has a similar down-low, street-level, quasi-documentary feel, as if we’ve been dropped into a setting with a small group of characters to watch them live their lives, just off to the side of where most of mainstream America usually travels—or would ever want to go.
The young cast of newcomers is outstanding, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonie, a zippy, zapping combination of sass, innocence, vulnerability and pluck. Valeria Cotto plays her friend Jancey, who lives at the motel next door, Future World. Christopher Rivera is Scooty, whose mom (Mela Murder) slips Moonie and Halley food from the diner where she works.
Much of the movie is shown from the worldview of the kids, who revel in the simple delights of childhood—sharing a messy ice cream cone before it melts, spitting on a car from a balcony, burping, making fart noises, playing hide and seek. They also set fire to an abandoned apartment complex, turn off the power to the motel and sass grownups.
But you really come to care about these urchins, worry about them and empathize with their plights, especially when the movie heads into some inevitable danger zones—and it’s not just alligators lurking in the lagoon or a creepy old man nosing around the playground.
No one looks after the kids like Bobby, the beleaguered manager, who also serves as a surrogate father. Real dads are in short supply, and the young moms are floundering, too. Dafoe—whose lifetime of juicy roles has included playing Jesus of Nazareth and Spiderman’s nemesis, the Green Goblin—is already getting Oscar buzz for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. It’s one of his best parts, and best performances, in years.
And Bria Vinaite, as Moonee’s mother, also makes a remarkable debut. Halley is a mess, a scrawny, scrappy spitfire scrounging around for whatever she can find, do, scam or steal at the bottom of life’s scrap heap. She’s fiercely protective of her daughter and she’ll strike like a scorpion when provoked.
But mostly, The Florida Project is a tattered tale about kids growing up in the flotsam and jetsam of an American economy barely afloat offshore of Florida’s signature tourism mecca. Moonee and her friends use their imaginations, the way kids do, to make their own magic in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.
At one point, Moonee and Jancey play in a downed cypress tree that’s been toppled, likely by a storm, or perhaps a hurricane. Moonee says it’s her favorite tree because “it fell down but it’s still growing.”
This saucy, sad, rousing, riveting drama gives you the same hope for Moonee and her friends—that life may knock them around, may knock them down, may topple them sideways. But you hope, somehow, they’ll keep going, and keep growing.
In theaters Oct. 8, 2017