The Florida Project.

The Florida Project is the best movie I have seen so far in 2017. Granted, it’s December 3rd, and there are many movies left to be seen, but I will go out on a limb and guess that when I’ve seen all the likelies I will still end up with this bold, empathetic film at or very near the top of my list. The movie takes a look at a small bit of the American underclass, delivering a slice-of-life story that becomes so much more because of the living, breathing characters that populate it and the script’s obvious regard for its denizens.

The title is a play on words of sorts; it takes place in the Magic Castle, one of the welfare motels around Walt Disney World, a place where residents pay by the week and often must vacate the premises for one night, moving to a neighboring flophouse, because the apartment’s management won’t let anyone stay long enough to establish residency. (I presume Florida has a consecutive-days threshold where a transient guest becomes a tenant and acquires additional rights.) The property manager is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who plays an important role in the lives of the two central characters, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as they live through a period of a few weeks at the start of Moonee’s summer break from school.

The movie shifts focus frequently, but the bulk of the story is told from the eyes of the kids, Moonee, her friend Scout, and new friend Jancy, with whom the first two get acquainted when they are caught spitting on Jancy’s mother’s car – because that’s the sort of thing you do all day when there’s no school, little money, and lots of time to fill. The three head off on daily adventures in the neighborhood, which is mostly filled with other low-end housing complexes and tacky stores selling Disney paraphernalia, finding trouble when it doesn’t find them first.

The struggles of the adults in their lives play out right in front of them, including the central struggle, paying the rent. Much of what happens in The Florida Project mirrors the problems Matthew Desmond covered in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: paying the rent means working, which means someone has to watch the kids, which either costs money or means leaning on neighbors, friends, even strangers, so some people don’t work. Halley is an unemployed stripper whom we see selling knockoff perfumes to tourists for cash and who eventually (and inevitably) starts turning tricks to pay the rent, which precipitates the crisis that turns this movie into a routine slice-of-life piece into a story with an arc and a conclusion. Her background is never discussed, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume she’s a victim of something traumatic, especially given her disproportionate responses to even minor disappointments. Halley feels like a fictional incarnation of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s “people who won’t help themselves,” but while she’s unsympathetic on the screen, it’s also quite easy to see how she could feel thoroughly trapped by her environment. There’s no path for her out of poverty, and she’s basically one mistake away from losing her home and/or her kid.

Moonee is the real heart of this movie, and Prince, who was six at the time of filming, gives one of the best performances of the year. She’s mischievous, vivacious, and perceptive, adept at manipulating adults and navigating their world, often tumbling out adult words that you don’t expect to hear from a six-year-old’s mouth. She’s the ringleader of the three kids, and is almost totally unflappable, even when crises seem to unfold around her; when they cause real trouble, she’s the one trying to come up with the cover story. You can see glimpses of the impact this life is having on her, but she’s also still at an age where she’s resilient to setbacks, and her bond with Bobby, while seldom directly referenced, is one of the best emotional threads in the story. (Prince, who reminds me a bit of English actress Honeysuckle Weeks, and her two young co-stars did an adorable interview about making the film with Variety.)

Dafoe also delivers the best performance I’ve seen from him, even though Bobby is probably a bit too good to be true – he’s likely poorly paid, constantly dealing with tenants who are late on the rent or causing trouble, and often doesn’t have the money to undertake needed repairs, but he’s still got a heart of gold, especially where Moonee is concerned. The scene where he sees a non-resident adult talking to a group of the project’s kids as they play is one of the film’s most gripping moments, giving insight into Bobby’s character and setting his temperament apart from the more labile personalities living in the building.

Director/co-writer Sean Baker employs some subtle perspective shifts, some just varying the distance to the characters, but getting particular value from dropping the camera to the kids’ level even when the adults are the center of the scene. The Florida Project would be utterly joyless to watch without the kids – even though it would be true to life – and Baker uses the kids’ storyline both to provide some needed relief from the depressing reality of Halley’s life and to show how the wonder of childhood isn’t tied to wealth or possessions, but to time and that sense of adventure. That contrast between Moonee’s view of the world and Halley’s parallels the other, unspoken contrast between the story in this movie and the fantasy world in the shadow of which the film occurs. The Magic Castle may not quite be the Unhappiest Place on Earth, but it feels close when we see it through Halley’s eyes. The movie ends on a perfect note, as well, as the climax itself, which was not just inevitable but which I would say was the only possible outcome of what had come before in the script, gives way to an utterly priceless concluding sequence. Yes, we know it’s temporary, and we all know what will come afterward, but for that one last moment, we see the characters leave the world behind and run for joy.

Comments

  1. I made a comment about this film a few weeks ago. I thought the film was pretty terrific, but I wish I hadn’t just concluded a vacation to Disney World a week before I went to see it. Because it totally took me out of the last scene. I just kept saying to myself, “They’d never be able to do that!” So my own mind and thinking of logistics took me out of the emotions of the scene.

    I’d love to see Dafoe win an Oscar, but I sense that Sam Rockwell might be the favorite for that award right now.

    • I believe the final scene was fictional. The film is told through the eyes of a six year old, and when everything around her seems to be falling apart, wouldn’t she fantasize about going to a place where she would feel safe?

    • Hmm. I hadn’t really considered that. I suppose that could be a good explanation. And yet at the same time, it would seem to undermine all the realism the film depicted up to that point. So, yea, who knows? That’s what makes it fun to discuss.

  2. The Florida Project is a reference to the codename that Walt and Disney corporate used to refer to Disney World while they were building it, so there’s another layer there.

    Great film.

  3. Keith, did you see it in theaters? I absolutely loved this film, but saw it with a bunch of old hags who were LAUGHING when the credits appeared. Wondering what the group around you thought of it.

    • I can’t stand when people laugh at things in films that aren’t funny. I remember when I went to see Avatar in the theaters, way towards the end of its theatrical run, one woman was laughing at pretty much everything in the second half of the film. Now you could argue that Avatar takes itself way too seriously, but, I mean, she was laughing at EVERYTHING.

  4. Think Chuck Grassley will watch this movie? I know it is an endeavor non-wealthy people waste all their money on, but maybe someone could give him a free ticket.

  5. Looking forward to seeing The Florida Project. I really liked the movie Starlet by the same director.

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