Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
Last year Moonlight surprised the whole world. It was the small little independent film that could which slowly built momentum and good will all the way to the little gold statue on Oscar night. This has happened before. Slumdog Millionaire sticks out in my mind. And what these films have in common is they tell the stories of those whose stories are often overlooked. Of course, this type of open indicates my love for the film in question: The Florida Project. The first film from promising filmmaker Sean Baker after his breakout film Tangerine, this film manages to be a breath of fresh air while also walloping its viewer with heart and hardship, making it a surprisingly empathetic film which focuses on those whose stories are often untold and overlooked. Whether it gains the type of momentum that the two aforementioned films gained come awards season remains to be seen, but I would not be surprised to see it happen.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a little girl growing up in an extended stay motel outside of Disney World in Orlando where she is often found to kill time on her own. Her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a young, single mother struggling to make ends meet, finding any way possible to make rent each week, including selling bootleg perfume in the parking lots of much nicer tourist resorts. She exposes her daughter to this rough life, but their bond appears to be unbreakable as Moonee learns the hardships of living life week to week, finding fun and friends wherever they may present themselves. When Halley begins to struggle to pay the rent to property manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), she makes a choice to try to make ends meet which compromises her long term relationship with her daughter, despite her intentions being for the best.
The Florida Project is a colorful, visually appealing film taking place in the “Most Magical Place on Earth”, and Baker creates a portrait of a young girl who seems to find joy and happiness, even amidst the more dire circumstances. Luckily for her, she is naive to what is going on around her. Despite the aesthetic, this is a film which is endlessly heartbreaking. Halley is often neglecting her daughter in favor of turning a trick in order to get by, but the heartbreak comes from the circumstance of this family. Baker is able to capture their story without passing judgment on their poor life decisions, while also not entirely absolving them of the sins they have committed, Halley and Moonee both. In doing this, Baker turns a lens on the impoverished and their often downward spiral situations. It’s important too that Baker shows us another family in a similar situation, Ashley and Scooty, with Ashley taking the straight and narrow road to getting by. But in the end, they still find themselves impoverished, living in an extended stay motel with no future on the horizon.
This is no way to raise a young child. Baker knows it, the audience knows, and even Halley knows it. However, Halley is in such a rut that it is nearly impossible for her to climb out of, living week to week and finding no opportunity to improve her or her child’s life, despite Moonee’s often upbeat outlook. There is no structure in Moonee’s life, no positive influences, save the equally broken manager Bobby, played marvelously by Willem Dafoe. I think it is very important to give a voice to people in the world in this exact situation, those who are often vilified by society as losers and deadbeats, without the fully understanding their entire story. As I said before, this film by no means forgives these broken people for their flaws and misgivings, but it attempts to find a better understanding of them as people instead of simply casting them away offhand.
This distinction is crucial to the success of the film, as it is predicated on the audience forming a bond with its central character, Moonee, played by the admittedly amateurish actress Brooklynn Prince, but her charm and humor rise above her acting limitations, making her too much of a sweetheart to dismiss. I was fully invested in the film nearly from start to finish, which is an impressive accomplishment for Baker. However, the ending came with a stylistic and rather jarring change of tone with which I initially struggled greatly. In the end, by Baker setting his film on the doorstep of Disney World, he is emphasizing the great dichotomy between the happiest place on earth and a place where people struggle to make ends meet, despite their best and most noble efforts. As a society, we too often ask why people don’t make a better life for themselves without understanding the limitations that come naturally with starting life underprivileged and often scarred.
We don’t get to see what happens to Moonee when she grows up, but the most upsetting part of the story is that we probably don’t have to. Her future was written by circumstance, not by her own wherewithal.