The title “The Florida Project” might suggest innovative filmmaking, particular since the director and co-writer is Sean Baker, who famously shot Tangerine on iPhones. Titles can be misleading, however, and The Florida Project offers nothing so revolutionary from the technical side, unless you count the fact that it was shot on 35 mm film (which is sort of retro-revolutionary these days, as digital cameras have come to dominate the “film” business). It may be a blast from the past, but Baker’s choice of medium pays off big-time, because Alexis Zabe’s beautiful color cinematography is one of the two best things about this film, the other being the performances of the three principal actors—Bria Vinaite (in her first film role), Brooklynn Prince (in her second), and Willem Dafoe.
The Florida Project draws on the legacy of films such as Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978), which offers a child’s-eye view of Watts, and Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, 1953), which does the same for Coney Island. In this case, we get a view of a somewhat seedy region of Orlando surrounding the Magic Kingdom, a.k.a. Walt Disney World, through the eyes of young Moonee (Prince). She lives with her single mom Halley (Vinaite) in a motel called The Magic Castle, the name intended to create confusion for individuals making online reservations for their vacation at Disney World. Thanks to the tourist trade, The Magic Castle is better kept up than you might expect, and its glowing pink and purple exterior offers a far more pleasant experience than is enjoyed by most of its long-term residents, most of whom lead hand-to-mouth existences on the fringes of society.
None of that matters to Moonee, however, who is delighted with the freedom available to her, thanks to it being summer and her mom being too preoccupied with her own problems to supervise her child. So Moonee runs free with a pack of friends from The Magic Castle and a nearby hotel, including Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). They’re real little brats, who get away with everything from oppositional behavior to serious property damage (there’s some white privilege at work here—black children have ended up in juvy for far less), in part because of their youth, in part due to the moderating influence of the sympathetic motel property manager (Dafoe), but most of all because the film wouldn’t work otherwise. The Florida Project offers a kind of wish fulfillment, a romanticized view of poverty that minimizes the real dangers faced by adults and children alike and has no interest in exploring the damaging effects of living on the fringes of society.
The Florida Project’s key short-coming is in the screenplay (by Baker and Chris Bergoch), which is repetitive and anecdotal without offering much in the way of a story. Most egregiously, Baker and Bergoch end the film with a clumsy fantasy sequence that seems tacked on from some other movie. The problem, I think, is that most of the film was based on the proposition that it’s possible to keep reality at bay (which is part of what makes The Florida Project appealing—who wouldn’t like to live in the land of no consequences for a while?), and the screenwriters couldn’t come up with a satisfying way to end the fantasy and move into the realm of real life.
Despite those objections, The Florida Project has much to recommend it. While this film may not be revolutionary, it does offer some fresh faces in amazingly natural performances while celebrating the exuberance of childhood and honoring the lives of people living at the margins of society. Above all, it finds the beauty in a scruffy part of Florida that the tourist board would probably prefer that you ignore. | Sarah Boslaugh