Director: Sean Baker/2017

After receiving much acclaim for his film Tangerine, director Sean Baker, along with co-writer Chris Bergoch, are back with their new film The Florida Project, one of the strongest films of the year.  Like Tangerine, The Florida Project has the feel of a documentary as the camera follows its subjects, prying into their daily lives, never judging, just documenting.  Judgments are left to the viewer, but here the script is tighter than Baker’s previous work. With a dash of poetry, that draws out an ounce of hope, this is an otherwise heartbreaking and tragic tale that ironically takes place in the shadow of the happiest place on Earth: Disney World.

The film follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a child, and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they run around their section of Orlando creating mischief and mayhem while their parents are often not around.  It is summer break, and while Disney World and the Magic Kingdom is nearby, they make their own world of make-believe at the Magic Castle Motel where Moonee and Scooty live.  Sean Baker explorers the whole culture of the various people who live in motels like these struggling to pay the weekly rate to keep a roof over their heads.

Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is more of a best friend to her daughter than a mother.  She is a street-wise girl with much beauty, and not a lot of self-esteem which often leads to poor choices.  Her idea of parenting is teaching her daughter how to get wholesale perfumes at cost and then sell them for $20 to people leaving their Disney World Hotels, or putting her daughter in the bathtub for a bath while she entertains certain “Johns” in the other room.  With Scooty and their new recruit Jancey, Moonsee begins to follow in Mom’s footsteps learning how to hustle tourists for spare change to buy an ice cream cone that all 3 share, or playing around an old mill.

They also like to cause trouble at The Magic Castle Hotel, causing headaches for the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Bobby, in many ways, is the defacto father of everyone at The Magic Castle Motel.  He is a benevolent one, giving much grace to each and every resident as he is all too familiar with their circumstances.  He also is firm and provides structure and limits for those who have none.  His character is a sharp contrast with the rest of the characters around him, and without his watchful eye, the lives of Moonee and Scooty would be much worse.

The Florida Project is an endurance test for the audience who may be pushed to the limit of watching children with no supervision doing and saying things that are emblematic of children whose parents are grown-up children themselves, providing no guidance or direction, just fun.  And while it may push your limits, it is a beautiful film to look at, and one that may earn some looks for awards season.

The real problem is that parents are teaching their children, whether they intend to or not, and Moonee has been a good learner.  Many of life’s lessons are caught, rather than taught, and if so, its obvious that these kids have learned, like their parents, to survive. The daily routine of life gives way to the harsh consequences of how you live that life.  The Florida Project doesn’t shy away from what has to happen in the end. Its actions are real, and so are its consequences.

Halley and Scooty’s Mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), are thick as thieves as they hit the town at night, dancing and flirting with food truck cooks, and going to clubs.  Ashley is holding down a regular job as a waitress at a diner where she hooks Halley and Moonee up with free food.  When Halley crosses the line of the moral code of the street, Ashley must make the decision to let it go and keep acting like a child with Halley, or choose to grasp the ring of responsibility and pull herself and Scooty, up.

That seems to be the real message of this film.  No matter what circumstances one has in life, you must grasp the opportunity to do your best and climb up and out of the pit you find yourself in.  If not for yourself, then at least strive for better for the sake of your children.  As the film has no strict narrative, you are left to immerse yourself into this world and tag along with these children as they explore their neighborhood.

Only when you have walked in another’s shoes can you truly begin to appreciate the deeper reasons people find themselves where they are.  Only then can you begin to make informed judgments about them.  If you simply stay quiet for a couple of hours and observe these characters, you will be surprised by what you’ve learned. By the end of the film, you will find that there are more layers to each character than you first realized, and there are no easy solutions.

It is so easy to make snap judgments based on surface observations, but to truly understand, you need to get to know others where they are.  Dafoe’s Bobby is the best example of that in this film.  Dafoe gives a riveting performance, that is as subtle as he has ever been, without diminishing any of the intensity and power that he brings to each character he has played.

The decisions that Bobby makes are never emotional ones, but thoughtful ones that balance out truth and grace.  Never do we see any action of Bobby that is based out of emotion, except when he is motivated by love to protect those under his care, like when the potential child predator is hanging around the children’s playground that he must run off the premises.  In many ways, his character is like a good shepherd trying to tend to lost and broken sheep who just want to find their way home (much like Joan Osborne might sing about in the 1990’s song “One of Us”).

The Florida Project ends the film by switching the point of view a bit, from a 3rd person observational gaze, to one that is more from Moonee’s perspective demonstrating the resilience of children, even in the harshest of circumstances.  No matter what, children still have an innate goodness and hope that wells up inside them giving them cause to view the uncertain future with guarded optimism.  For many of the adults in the film, theirs was a false optimism that caused a disconnect from reality, as they all seemed to be playing make-believe.  For the children who understand all too well their reality, and perceive their parent’s failure to be the adult, hope is a powerful weapon against despair where make-believe is the starting point for forming a new reality.  The Florida Project captures how sad it is that so many are living without hope, right in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.