Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.
The Magic Kingdom. That’s the name of the hotel whose guests we acquaint ourselves with over the two-hour length of “The Florida Project.” Sean Baker is back with his new vulgar ode to childhood run amok. At the Magic Kingdom Motel, we follow the exploits of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the tiny daughter of one of the hotel’s inhabitants. The first time we see her in action she (and her friends) spit on a new resident’s car thus inciting a mini-riot that Willem Dafoe’s character, Bobby, handles. Like mother like daughter they say (or should I guess) and we witness Bria Vinaite’s character Halley attempt to maintain their residency at the Magic Kingdom with increasingly childlike desperation.
Before “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker delivered on color galore with his film “Tangerine.” This film is no different. Bathed in rose, seafoam green, and all manner of pastel colors, the film’s sugary colors coat every frame. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe often shows us an entire panorama while the protagonist’s fill just a tiny amount of space. More often we’re drawn in by the close-up photography to really examine an individual: Gloria, Bobby, Moonee, Halley, or any of the other characters populating this Easter egg motel.
The film meanders often, allowing us to soak in the natural atmosphere of Moonee’s world. The sheer lawlessness that allows kids to burn down an entire building prevails because mothers fail to take care of their daughters. Kids bum change off strangers. Moms smoke joints in the pool at night complaining about their kids. Kids practice twerking for their mothers to laugh.
We laugh when kids act like adults because they boil adulthood down to its simplest terms, reminding us of how childish we act when we try to be mature. By the time the joke of ‘kids acting like adults’ wears off, we learn to love these characters (guided by Bria’s tempestuous performance and Willem Dafoe’s tenderness) just in time for life to happen. In a story about kids acting reckless and a mother struggling to pay her motel rent, there’s only one predictable outcome.
Tenderness wins, in the end, but not before The Magic Kingdom Motel crashes over us with its reality, and we’re treated to one last illusion of youth (possibly the greatest illusion we can ever have) that everything will be alright. Never judging vulgarity, “The Florida Project” bathes in its character’s crassness delivering insight through the layered progression of character. Very little conflict ensues, but we don’t need much to understand the subtext we’re living in.
You may feel entitled to spank these children for replicating their childlike mothers (the only true father figure to these kids being Willem Dafoe) but this film doesn’t. It revels in what it means to be a kid without bounds. It elaborates on the dangers of growing older, becoming responsible, but never growing up. “The Florida Project” offers a glimpse into a life we would ignore if we saw it saunter up to our car offering discounted perfumes, and asks us to empathize because its subjects are just as human as the rest of us. This film is (literally) loud, in your face, and vulgar but that serves to highlight the true tenderness at play throughout the course of its two-hour runtime. Go see it in theaters if you can. Be prepared for a shock, but stay past the shock for the heart. This film is a charmer, even if it swears a lot.
P.S. As a freelance Boom Operator and Sound Mixer, I would have had a heart attack the moment the director said they were okay with helicopter noises, airplane passes, and diegetic music. I was VERY surprised and I hate to say it but this film was kind of a sound man’s holiday. The work was done. A professional would say it was lazy, but you can tell it’s very intentional.
In theaters Friday, October 20th