When I was a kid my family was never overly prone to family vacations, but one year when I was about eleven we did go on the customary Orlando trip that most American families need to make at least once. However, me being me, I had little interest in actually going to Disney World given my belief that Disney was for babies. For me the big attraction was Universal Studios Florida, where I had a blast. As a child the name “Orlando” seemed like some kind of wonderland that had wall to wall fun stuff everywhere and I could only help but be jealous of whatever kid lived in such a place. Needless to say, I was rather oblivious of the fact that the city of Orlando actually had the reputation of being something of a tacky dump outside of its theme parks. It’s simple economics really, it’s something of a one-industry town and people have little reason to live there unless they’re working at a theme park and that isn’t necessarily a very high paying job. As such you’re left with a city that’s dependent on a significant unskilled workforce but also desperate to hide them away from the tourists. It’s this hidden side of the “magic kingdom” which is at the center of the new film The Florida Project.
The film is set at a cheap motel near Disney World which, during the off season, has come to be a long term home for a variety of disenfranchised people with nowhere else to live. We focus our attention on a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). The film is told largely but not exclusively from Moonee’s perspective and it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how Halley came to be in this situation, but it’s not hard to connect the dots. Halley can’t be much older than 20 and she’s tatted up, talks like the “cash me ousside” girl, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of long term plans. She gets all her money through a variety of rackets and the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is increasingly having his patience tested by her reckless behavior and often late “rent” payments. However, Moonee is largely oblivious to these adult concerns and not particularly aware of how “ratchet” her surroundings are. Instead she spends most of her time playing with a couple of other children staying at these motels like her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).
The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s follow up to his 2015 film Tangerine, which looked at a few days in the lives of a pair of transsexual prostitutes in Los Angeles. While The Florida Project looks at characters that are straighter and whiter than those of his previous film but both films share an interest in showing the lives of the people who are normally ignored by society. Here he’s looking at people who would not even be called “working class” exactly as many of them aren’t even working and if they are it’s in highly transient minimum wage jobs. Halley in particular feels like she could have been a character in last year’s Andrea Arnold film American Honey; she is young, not terribly well educated, exudes sexuality, and seems to be rebelling because the alternative is to become some kind of pathetic housewife. In Arnold’s movie that kind of behavior seemed somewhat harmless, but unlike the characters in that movie Halley is a mother and that means she’s dragging a small child into her web of dysfunction. However, Moonee does not seem to constantly be in abject danger and she’s actually pretty well adjusted to her environment. Much of the film is told from her perspective and you can sort of nostalgically relate to a lot of the regular kid stuff she does even if she is in a different situation and occasionally behaves in rather unrefined ways.
Outside of Moonee and Halley the main figure of the film is Willem Dafoe’s hotel manager Bobby, who has the rather tricky task of playing someone who clearly has some respect for the various tenants of the hotel even though they test his patience at times and is helpful to them in some ways even though he is in other ways complicit in their exploitation. There is an element of suspense around his character in that the audience wants to like him for a variety of reasons but they’re also constantly weary that he’ll disappoint them. Sean Baker never does end up judging him one way or another and a big part of the film’s success is that it never judges any of the other characters either even though it doesn’t shy away from their less flattering characteristics. The movie is not interested in lecturing its audience about the causes of income inequality and while there are some bad people in the movie there are no true villains that it places the blame for any of the troubles on. Instead it wants to simply be this empathetic and in some ways actually kind of funny look at the lives of the characters in this particular time and place.
Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, was famously filmed using a (modified) iPhone but still looked great and perhaps took on an added energy through the use of its unconventional medium. Working with a bigger budget this time around Baker is now actually shooting on 35mm but is once again working in a rather colorful (both literally and figuratively) location and has maintained the vibrancy. The film may confound some audiences looking for a movie with more of a traditional narrative with a three act structure and characters with more of a clear motivation. This is not to say that it’s a completely formless movie by any means and compared to many arthouse films it’s downright conventional. There is a clear ending that it is building towards but that isn’t always clear when you’re watching it and the movie definitely goes against convention by including a lot of scenes that exist more to fill in the world than to advance a plot. That could hurt its commercial prospects and so could it’s rather unusual title, which sounds like a codename that no one bothered to change, but it’s definitely a movie that’s worth checking out for its energy, its wit, and it’s willingness to look at a world that generally goes unexamined.