The followup to his exuberant Tangerine, The Florida Project is Sean Baker’s sidelong glance at the American dream, a heartening yet dispiriting fable of youth. Our protagonist is Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), an energetic young child enjoying her summer holidays; her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) has found a temporary home in a motel named ‘The Magic Castle’, a business piggybacking on the nearby Disney World.
This bright purple stopping point and others near it play host to a community of disadvantaged families and individuals. The property is maintained by a diligent Willem Defoe as Bobby, benevolent manager with a clear guilt complex. He is only slightly less of an observer than the audience, however – exasperatedly attempting to chivy Halley into a more conventionally accepted mode of parenting, and failing to do so.
Halley and the other parents’ relaxed attitudes to supervision mean that Moonee has the freedom to roam the local area, accompanied by her contemporaries and friends. These begin as likely lads Scooty and Dicky, and by the end have narrowed to an intense friendship with Jancey, who lives in ‘The Future Land’ inn with her grandmother. Fathers are a rarity in The Florida Project, and unbroken families conspicuous by their absence.
Mooney’s explorations provide the bulk of the film’s action, and Baker’s child’s-eye view of her fun is remarkable. We wheel about at their diminutive height, scamper at their scrabblingly slow pace, and come to share their disdain for propriety and manners. Yet this abandon is weighed down by the reality of their situation, and the harms they endure and witness. Assaults, drug abuse, prostitution – these children are granted liberty by their parents, but are also chained to the worst of America’s ills.
The glitz of Disneyworld looms large in the nearness of hotels they will never be able to afford, and tourists who regret ever having strayed near ‘The Magic Castle’. The actual plot of The Florida Project, for it doesn’t rely too heavily on it, is more of an accumulation of events than a chain, and this structure is reflected keenly by the attitudes of overseers who come to play a role in the denouement.
Baker’s viewpoint never feels judgemental, despite so much in the film that defies the norm, and this represents a tonal strength. It is matched by a cast, young and adult, who bring great humanity to their characters. The children are rascals to the core, with Mooney’s troublemaking enticing more moral youths to the fun. Dafoe’s Bobby is a cantankerously lovable send-up of misers; he can’t keep his game face up when counting rent money and chases off lechers for the sake of his young charges. Bria Vinaite’s Halley is capable of depressing acts, but loves her daughter clearly, and has been landed with duties with which she understandably struggles to contend. Again, the film’s empathy toward its cast is a pleasure.
The Florida Project is aptly named – one is left with the feeling of having observed a controlled experiment in improvisation, so freewheeling are its twists and turns. It is affecting and thought-provoking, but in a manner which does not demand attention, gently offering a fluorescent look at America’s iniquities.