A trip to Disneyworld is every kid’s fantasy. Every day of the year, families pile into the park that radiates the magic of Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, and Tinker Bell, waiting for the happiness guaranteed by ride tickets, magic bands, premium park hotels, souvenirs, character breakfasts, and everything else that factors into the Disney experience. Underneath the façade of the Florida resort, however, is a surrounding community that struggles with poverty, addiction, and everyday life. “The Florida Project” chronicles this world.
Directed by Sean Baker, who shot his critically acclaimed last film “Tangerine” on three iPhones, and produced by A24, the studio behind “Moonlight,” “The Florida Project” follows the life of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) at the Magic Castle, a motel located outside of Disneyworld. The film opens with the song “We Are Family” and cuts to a scene of Moonee and two friends competing over how far they can spit off the railing of the motel. When an occupant begins to yell at the trio, they promptly respond with their own expletives, at one point confidently calling the woman a “biatch.” Yes, not a simple “bitch,” but a full-on sassy “biatch.”
This scene sets the stage for the rest of the film, documenting the life of a young person in these ironically named motels surrounding the larger magic castle. Moonee’s mother, Hailey (Bria Vinaite), is a single parent currently out of work. To earn her rent for the week, she spends afternoons with Moonee selling perfumes to tourists. When this business turns south, Hailey is forced to put both herself and Moonee at risk. Some of the most heartbreaking scenes of this film are not Hailey’s confrontations with the hotel manager Bobby (Willem Defoe), or the violent fights in front of the motel. Rather, they are when Moonee and her friends have to share one ice cream cone or when an old, run-down neighborhood serves as their playground. While other kids spend their summers playing in parks or riding their bikes around the block, kids like Moonee are trapped in a micro-world of hardship, and they don’t even know it.
With no non-diegetic music until the very last scene, Baker relies heavily on both the script and visuals to tell the story. Bright green, orange, purple, and magenta burst out in every scene, even in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the community. These bright colors complement the film’s surface portrayal of the innocence and amusement of youth. Yet underneath all of these light moments with Moonee and her friends are the hardships that the adults endure. This juxtaposition of light and dark demonstrates Baker’s careful touch and attention to how delicate and troubled this community is. He never forces the viewer to feel a certain way, instead relying on scenes that convey multiple meanings.
Baker also managed to make this film feel as much like a documentary as an actual dramatic portrayal. Many parts of the film are simultaneously hilarious and realistic, as when Moonee and her friends see a topless woman in the pool area and proceed to joke about her breasts. That level of authenticity is difficult to achieve, and once again Baker succeeds in showing, not telling, this story.
Much like “Moonlight,” “The Florida Project” succeeds in depicting and humanizing the lives of marginalized individuals who may have few ways of telling their story on their own. Independent movies like these are crucial to our understanding of people. “The Florida Project,” simple yet powerful, is an incredible look at a community too often neglected.