The Florida Project, which premiered back at Cannes and is now playing the Toronto International Film Festival is one of those movies that kind of tricks you into thinking, at first, that it’s going to be a whimsical movie about the wonders of childhood (and its happy-go-lucky trailer kind of solidifies this false impression). Don’t get me wrong, that’s certainly in there – but the tone set when Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” is blasted over the opening credits is purposefully misleading.
Directed by Sean Baker, who garnered a lot of attention with his 2015 film Tangerine, The Florida Project is set at a motel called The Magic Castle, where the pastel colors try to hide the sadness and desperation of the residents who call the motel, set firmly in the dark shadow of Disney World, “home.” (At one point a horrified couple on their honeymoon show up, having mistakenly booked it thinking it a hotel on Disney premises.) There’s drug use, fights in the parking lot, and every now and then a suspected sex offender will wander onto the premises – but none of this seems to matter to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), who is having the time of her life. What’s great is she and her friends act like normal six-year-olds who don’t have much in the way of parental supervision, as opposed to some idealistic superkid who only seem to exist in movies. In other words, she’s always getting into some kind of trouble: sometimes it’s spitting on a neighbor’s car, sometimes it’s shutting off the power to the entire complex (to the dismay of its manager, Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe, who is just trying to make the place the best it can be under the conditions), or accidentally burning down a nearby abandoned condo building. Moonee’s mom (Bria Vinaite) is a bit of a grifter, who scams her way to each week’s rent by selling perfume or stealing and reselling Disney passes – but the lengths she will go to earn money become more and more disturbing as the film goes on.
The Florida Project is a film about dismay, and the myth of the American dream. The people who live at The Magic Castle are one step away from not having a home at all and everyone’s situation seems a bit hopeless. But this isn’t a movie searching for answers to their plights. It’s just the way it is. All the while, Baker overloads viewers’ senses with bright, beautiful Florida hues. It’s a strange experience: your eyes will keep trying to tell you how fun all the bright colors are, while your brain will be overloaded with sorrow. The Florida Project is a remarkable film that somehow combines the wonder of childhood with the bleakness of a crumbled adulthood, all wrapped in a pastel bow.
This is a wonderful piece of filmmaking anchored by Prince on one side and Dafoe on the other. Prince is such a hellion on screen, it’s almost impossible to think of her as someone who could be calm long enough to take direction and film a movie, but here it is. And Dafoe gives one of his finest performances in his storied career. He’s just some guy who knows that he runs a shitty motel, but, dammit, he’s going to make it the best shitty hotel that he possibly can. He’s the moral center of the film and seems to be the only force keeping the place from turning into a disaster.
What’s also remarkable is that Baker doesn’t hold our hands. There’s hardly anything that even feels remotely like exposition and there isn’t much of a structured plot. (I mean these both as huge compliments.) Instead we follow the residents of the Magic Castle, absorbing their backstories and what’s happening in their lives. It’s crazy that this even works. And by the end, it’s evident that there was a structure to this all along, even though the film didn’t really want you to see that it was there – all leading up to what I can only describe as a glorious and masterful last scene that’s difficult to sit through without getting at least a little teary-eyed. Somehow, Baker produces a moment that encapsulates what it means to be six years old – and it’s impossible not to think of all the best friends we once had that we swore we’d never lose, but always did.
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