Director Sean Baker returns to explore marginalized figures in The Florida Project, shifting his focus from transgender sex workers on the streets of Los Angeles (Tangerine) to children growing up in seedy Floridian motels littered on the outskirts of Disney World. The film’s title derives from Walt Disney’s 1965 moniker for his Orlando theme park plans. The Mouse House’s shadow looms large over the residents of The Magic Castle, a gaudy pastel-purple budget motel where there is no Cinderella to be found — only weary and single young mothers such as Halley (Bria Vinaite) scrounging for the $35 required to stay each night. Such derelict conditions matter little to her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Moonee’s friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera); they reign over their cotton candy-colored kingdom with a mischievous joie de vivre, wreaking havoc on the benevolent proprietor Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and unraveling his attempts to govern his halfway house with a stern finesse. Baker aptly critiques the disparity of these social stratas, of the motel dwellers and the Orlando tourists, without succumbing to maudlin or simplistic moralizations; he never demonizes his impoverished characters, nor does he submerge them in somber melodramatics.
Although The Florida Project plumbs the depths of life on the poverty line, an infectious vitality radiates through each frame. Moonee’s subjective comprehension of the world as an enchanting place structures the film’s visual language. Baker aestheticizes her wonder through a Disneyfied mise-en-scène of popping colors and kitschy cartoon-esque buildings shot on vibrant 35mm. The ebullient Orange World wears a half-sliced orange on its dome top. The colossal statue of a staff-wielding wizard adorns a gift shop, its painted-on smile and bug eyes silently beckoning for patrons. Moonee’s summertime haven, the Twisted Treat, resembles her most desired sweet: a vanilla ice cream swirl with rainbow sprinkles crowned with a glistening red cherry. Amongst these whimsical edifices are various Dollar Trees that proudly display the coveted knock-off Disney products available inside, fast food joints and a glimmering sign that proudly emblazons a store called Machine Gun America. Such pictorial joviality imbues Moonee’s hardscrabble existence with a surreal edge.
In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Baker demonstrates the achingly small distance between Moonee’s environment and Walt Disney World. One evening, Moonee hitchhikes with her mother and friend Jancey to a barren field. The trio share a cupcake in celebration of Jancey’s birthday, their faces aglow from the distant kaleidoscopic colors of the theme park’s exalted fireworks show. This is as close as Jancey and Moonee will ever get to being inside Disney’s gates, and likely as close as Halley can ever bring them. At other times, these different classes comingle, and chaos ensues, as when a honeymooning couple mistakes the Magic Castle for a lavish Magic Kingdom resort; the irony of the similar names yet incongruous inner spaces imbues this scene with an acidic humor. The glossy-haired bride looks down upon Moonee and Scooty with a judgmental disdain as they bring her luggage inside in the hopes of procuring a tip. She chastises Bobby for allowing these unsupervised mongrels to run rampant in the late hours throughout his “gypsy project” and “welfare slum motel” and begs her husband to leave.
As Halley’s desperation to make her rent grows, she teaches her daughter how to profit off dumbfounded tourists by peddling wholesale perfumes at strip malls and country club. But since their sales are far too erratic and security guards keep chasing them away, Halley turns to prostitution. She ends up stealing a bundle of MagicBands (bracelets that enable families to skip long lines and smoothly execute their Disney trip) from her client to sell to another tourist, instead of using them to go to the theme park with Moonee. The enraged father of two returns to the Magic Castle in an attempt to retrieve them, but soon flees at the possible threat to his reputation.
In the cinematic tradition of so many coming-of-age narratives, The Florida Project takes place during the summer. Unlike such films as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Way, Way Back, Baker’s work is composed of a series of tender vignettes that transcend a standard three-act structure; viewers hazily saunter through the sweltering dog days as Moonee schemes to buy ice cream, holds a spitting contest from the motel balcony and wanders the nearby scraggly plains in search of her favorite tree. These simple, meandering sketches culminate in a hallucinatory and tonally disjunctive gut-punch after Halley’s ex-friend calls Child Protective Services on her, leading Moonee to flee in terror. There is a heartrending verisimilitude to Prince’s emotional journey from trusting naiveté to bewilderment to indignation in this sequence. Moonee bounds towards the Future Land motel, a pastiche of the 1950s Space Race where Jancey lives. Despite its name, Moonee does not come any closer to discovering her future, and Baker evades any question of what will happen to Moonee as he enters a wholly illusory denouement.
In a sudden gesture, Jancey reaches for Moonee’s hand, prompting a stylistic switch from 35mm to the guerilla-style iPhone camera and magically transports them to Walt Disney World. With their backs toward the camera, they dash through picturesque visions of nuclear families — parents posing for pictures with their princess-costumed children. The elegiac score (an orchestration of the opening song “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang) and frenetic handheld camera anchors viewers to the little girls’ rapturous fantasy. Moonee and Jancey do not stop running until they reach the Magic Kingdom’s infamous icon: Cinderella’s Castle. Then Baker abruptly cuts to black. With his subjects enraptured by the promises of America’s most commodified utopia, Baker’s mystifying finale might initially seem to undermine the goals of his critique on our capitalistic and post-economic crisis society, but perhaps it works to preserve Moonee and Jancey as proverbial Peter Pans; they never have to grow up and lose their buoyant spirit. The Florida Project is a marvelous portrait of childhood that depicts how it feels to live on the fringes and just out of reach from The Happiest Place on Earth.
Caroline Madden (@crolinss) also writes for Screenqueens, Bitch Flicks, and PopMatters. Her book Bruce Springsteen as Soundtrack will be published in 2019. MA in Cinema Studies from SCAD. NYFF Critics Academy participant.