‘The Florida Project,’ beautifully made with an enchanting story

November 3, 2017

Sean Baker’s films find stories in the unconventional, in the lives of people living on the fringes. His first film, “Tangerine,” shot entirely on iPhone, followed a day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles, CA. His excellent follow-up, the newly-released “The Florida Project,” follows the lives of an impoverished young mother and her daughter living in a motel in suburban Orlando, FL.

“The Florida Project” is full of colors. You can see from the trailer how director Sean Baker takes advantage of the eclectic color palette the location affords. There’s a store shaped like a giant orange, a gift shop with a huge leering wizard’s head on top, “Twistee Treat,” a larger-than-life ice cream stand shaped like a big sundae.

There’s an intentional tension here between the real and the stylized. We get to see things from the perspective of the brash and outspoken seven-year-old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince). From Mooney’s perspective, things might not be so bad. She lives with her mom in “The Magic Castle,” a purple-painted motel near Disney World, and gets to spend her free summer days completely unsupervised.

The film reminded me of a young adult novel in the best possible way—you get this feeling of wonder in seeing the world through an adolescent’s eyes. It begins with Mooney and her friend Scooty playing in the shade of a motel stairwell. We can hear another kid yelling their names at the top of his lungs, over and over again. What could possibly be so exciting? They find out there’s a new car parked over in Futureland (an adjacent, rocket-themed motel), and they all run over as fast as they can to go spit on it.

There’s an anarchic joy to Mooney’s life at the Magic Castle. She and her friends are almost completely unsupervised, much to the chagrin of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager, who they’re often getting in the way of. For better or worse, the motel is their playground: They play hide and seek in the lobby, pester guests for tips and buy ice cream when they can scrounge up enough spare change. While momentarily joyful, there’s a persistent feeling Mooney’s life can’t last like this forever, that soon enough reality is going to catch up.

Mooney’s mom, Halley, is recently unemployed. She’s young and doesn’t have a job or a car. Halley and Mooney live on the edge, eating free Waffle House for lunch and trying to cobble together enough rent money for Bobby every week. While Mooney lives in her idyllic world, her mom has to do whatever she can so they can survive.

The Magic Castle feels like a real, lived-in world. Sean Baker did an excellent job making it feel like a place with dimension and character. Mooney, giving a tour of her neighborhood to her new friend Jancey, points at motel rooms and says things like, “The man who lives in here gets arrested a lot.”

Despite the world of “The Florida Project” being vibrant and beautifully-depicted, it’s still an environment in which everyone is living on the fringes. The central question the movie asks is how can Halley, or the millions of Americans like her who live in states of semi-transience, make it in America? Halley has to support Mooney, and doesn’t have a car or college education—so what kind of things is the system pushing her to do?

The film definitely doesn’t go the pat, sentimental route. I left amazed at what I’d seen, and also deeply-troubled about what it asked us, the audience, to question about our country. That being said, once it ended I did hear an older woman behind me say, “That was the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen,” so it might not be for everyone. But I’m glad “The Florida Project” doesn’t end conventionally, because that would have been Baker portraying the fantasy world as reality.

The movie plays with the real and the imaginary. We get to see a really difficult situation through the hopeful, wonder-filled eyes of a seven-year-old. Beneath the vibrant, idiosyncratic world are very present economic realities of modern-day America, perhaps problems many of us would be happy to ignore.

“The Florida Project” succeeds because it is beautiful, well-crafted and relevant. The world it depicts—unhampered sprawl, increased commodification, stark economic inequality—is indicative of so much of America. There is beauty and despair in it, and maybe a shred of hope too.

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