A bunch of kids roaming around the outskirts of Disneyworld; everything points to a whimsical coming-of-age story, but under the surface of Sean Baker’s new film is a damning indictment of the failings of the American system. The title refers to the Disney corporation’s plan for a utopian haven, being designated into areas such as ‘Magic Castle’ and ‘Futureworld’; instead of representing exotic locales and paradises, here they refer to a cluster of rundown motels, a product of the US welfare system.
It’s here where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) try to bring life to their limited surroundings, treating the area like it’s their playground, whether that be cutting the power to the whole property, begging for money from strangers to buy ice cream, or spitting on residents’ cars. The latter enables them to meet Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a quieter girl who is initially intimidated by their flamboyance, but whom subsequently grows fond of them.
Whilst the kids are effervescent in their attempts to brighten the mood around the place, the adults are struggling to make a living; Halley (Bria Vinaite), Moonee’s mother, attempts to find money by any means possible, whether be stealing theme-park passes from unwitting tourists or selling perfume outside a more prestigious resort. Such is the lack of structure in her life, she’s always seemingly on the edge of eviction, with only motel manager Bobby’s (a fantastic Willem Dafoe) laxness on rent payments keeping her from being on the streets.
He has his own problems, being far more paternal and nurturing towards Moonee than he is with his own child (Caleb Landry Jones); despite the young girl’s arrogance and back-chatting, her precociousness makes her an irresistibly charming character. Prince produces one of the best child performances in recent years, capturing perfectly both the wide-eyed nature and vulnerability of youth.
This trait also applies to her mother, with Vinaite still managing to make you feel sympathetic towards the character despite her shortcomings. She regularly shows a petulant side, tormenting Scooty’s mother Ashley, her old friend, by burping in her diner after the previous arrangement of free food is revoked. As Ashley makes a more concerted effort to better her child’s upbringing, Halley’s life goes into a downward spiral; given that she is arguably more irresponsible than her own daughter, it makes her undying love for Moonee all the more powerful.
As with Baker’s previous film Tangerine, this has a visual flair; the fluorescent colours of the motel exteriors are juxtaposed by the dim interiors, symbolising the disparity between surface levels and underbellies. The camera freely follows the kids; their ventures are fluent and uninterrupted, capturing wide-eyed wonder and innocence in the same vein of Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood. There’s also a hint of Andrea Arnold’s excellent American Honey, namely in the focus on impoverished communities, but also with Halley’s search for consistent income and inner peace.
Such is the excellence of the film, it makes the jarring ending all the more dumbfounding; given that the final scenes are effortlessly powerful, the last-minute left-turn proves to be a major misstep, neglecting a genuinely moving arc for a detour that is nonsensical and mawkish. Whilst it doesn’t detract too much from what preceded it, it blunts the impact somewhat and leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
It’s an outlier in a film that expertly combines whimsy with bleakness; Baker manages to strike that delicate balance with aplomb for the majority of the film, resulting in a powerful and charming piece of work that is simultaneously empathetic towards its characters but scathing towards the establishment. Whilst the message is somewhat negated by an odd stylistic choice, The Florida Project possesses the magic that the nearby theme-park promises.