“The Florida Project”: Wishing Only Goes So Far

Happiness doesn’t come cheap. For many outside the privileged class, the price is prohibitively high. Those in the privileged class glance at this inescapable truth and wonder, with little intent to follow up, what they might do to subvert it.

The Florida Project — directed by the increasingly essential filmmaker Sean Baker, who also co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch — trains its eye on the darkest corners of that tension. Its characters live, almost literally, in the shadow of Orlando, Florida’s Walt Disney World — known to its legions of visitors and admirers as “the happiest place on earth.” That golden sheen doesn’t stretch so far, though, and what lies beyond it is often ugly. To its credit, The Florida Project works hard to find a few bright spots amid that ugliness. It’s a complicated portrait that neither moralizes nor equivocates.

The film unfolds across one summer for restless six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle Motel in Orlando, a brightly colored but sloppily maintained facility that serves as home for some of Orlando’s most impoverished. Its occupants, who have to switch rooms every so often to avoid establishing legal residency, can barely muster a grunt at broken laundry machines, splattered paint and cramped surroundings. For the viewer of means, this place appears a travesty. The characters have already made their peace: It’s home.

Moonee frolics with her friends through grubby parking lots and past tacky gift stores. She collects free breakfast scraps from Halley’s friend and upstairs neighbor Ashley (Mela Murder), a waitress at Waffle House. Moonee’s merry band of rabblerousers solicits coins from customers at a nearby ice cream store and gawks at the motel’s most promiscuous resident as she lounges topless by the pool. They spit, curse, fight and laugh. They’re kids.

So are the adults, sometimes. Halley whines a lot, and seems to encourage some of Moonee’s most regrettable tendencies. She’s taken to sex work as her only reliable source of income. Vinaite, a neon-haired and heavily tattooed Instagram star in her first movie role, doesn’t flinch from Halley’s self-absorption and self-destruction, but she commits so fully to those qualities that they become perversely endearing. There’s tenderness behind Vinaite eyes, though it never makes its way to her mouth.

By contrast, the events unfolding onscreen in The Florida Project are often visually exuberant, especially when the kids run amok. They know of no other life than their own, and they behave as if they have all they could want.

But even at its sweetest, the movie’s core is unmistakably rotten. Baker relies on wide shots of Florida’s vast blue sky and the area’s gaudy storefronts to speak what the characters don’t: This place’s pleasures, such as they are, hide the constant threat of upheaval.

Even the most noble intentions can’t paper over layers of trauma, heartbreak and resigned disappointment. Motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) remains patient in the face of harsh insults from his residents; it’s striking and comforting to see Dafoe sans villainous posturing. He could so easily be a menace, impeding the residents’ already uncomfortable lives. But he’s just doing his job, striving to be lenient towards people for whom leniency is at times their only currency.

So much of this movie, which glides on the slow, humid passage of time, relies on the vibrancy of inexperienced actors, many underage. As in Tangerine, Baker’s excellent feature shot entirely on an iPhone, the cast is almost entirely unknown and largely amateur. The young ones behave so convincingly their age that it’s difficult to categorize their achievement as “acting.” But there’s truth in their work, as with the adults, who have natural chemistry and even some perverse comedic timing.

By the end, though, laughter drains out of the movie like the color in a young girl’s face. The Florida Project climaxes abruptly at a final image that’s as unsettling as it is inevitable. The last fifteen minutes are harrowing, and Baker offers no relief before cutting to a silent credits sequence.

What’s most striking is what’s left unsaid: Though the specter of Mickey Mouse hangs over everything, characters only utter the “D-word” a few times. For a movie that thumbs its nose at but can’t quite denounce American fantasies, this approach makes perfect sense. There’s no reason to put into words what’s already in the air.

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