I didn’t know much more going into THE FLORIDA PROJECT than that some people said it was great, that it was something about Florida and kids and that Willem Dafoe would show up at some point. No idea what it was about, just open for something interesting. That was a good strategy. But this is a review, so I sort of gotta tell you more. Heads up.
Turns out it’s about kids around six years old or so living in tacky tourist motels near Orlando. In their world, most buildings are painted bright pink or purple or shaped like a giant orange or ice cream cone or wizard. The title comes from what Disney World was called during the development stages, but of course it’s a double meaning here because these kids are basically living in the projects. Their parents are young, single, unable to be with them during the day because of work, or because they are inattentive.
We first meet Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and friends doing what they will do for most of the movie: run around giggling and raising holy hell. In that opening scene their current interest is spitting over a ledge onto a parked car whose owner Gloria (Sandy Kane), they soon discover, is smoking nearby, so she runs after them. They call her names and aren’t scared and are lectured for having “too much fun” after she tracks them to where they live and guilts Moonee’s mother into dragging them out to clean off the windshield with paper towels. In the process Moonee becomes friends with Gloria’s granddaughter Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
I immediately liked Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a tattooed and pierced young woman who has been fired from her job as a stripper and tries to pay rent by hustling perfume to tourists (among other things). She’s best friends with Waffle House waitress Ashley (Mela Murder), and “watches” her son Scooty (Christopher Rivera) during the day in exchange for food. And it quickly becomes clear that I’m a bad judge of character because Halley is a terrible mother, and a handy stereotype for those who hate poor people. She seems like a bratty kid herself, always getting into confrontations, never showing remorse, never admitting wrongdoing, never respectful of anyone, often obnoxious and unfair to managers and people behind desks who don’t get paid much either. I hate people who do that shit.
If somebody thinks this movie is insulting for focusing on such an irresponsible (and even lazy – she’s hard to drag away from laying on the bed smoking joints and watching TV) poor person, I don’t blame them. But every other adult here is more reasonable than Halley. Ashley is her peer, but has much more sense and realizes she has to cut off Scooty from Moonee for his own good. There’s another dad who has to (gets to?) move away who is nice but gives his son more discipline. And Gloria seems like a very kind guardian to her granddaughter and a good influence on Moonee.
If Halley has positive qualities as a mother, it’s probly these: the dangerous/degrading/illegal things she sometimes does are an attempt to keep a roof over her child’s head; she never takes her bad situation out on her child; she does a good job of making her child’s life fun and full of laughter. But her tendency to indulge Moonee in tiaras and other “pretty” things to distract her from harsh reality would seem more sweet if she ever taught her anything. Instead she lets her draw all over the walls and bother the neighbors and when Moonee insults people Halley just laughs. She’s supposed to be the grownup but she’s delighted by a fight in the parking lot and treats a fire in abandoned condos like it’s the eclipse. Gather up the family, we’re going to see the condo fire. And Ashley is observant enough to figure out that the kids actually started that fire. Halley is not. If she did know I’m not sure she wouldn’t have approved.
I don’t have a problem with her letting the kids run all over the place though. It reminded me so much of my childhood in a place without as many bright colors, running around to meet kids in different apartment complexes, sneaking into condemned buildings or houses under construction, knocking things over, getting yelled at and chased, scheming to get money for ice cream. I’m actually happy kids still do all that shit. I thought they stopped after they got phones.
The movie sort of sweeps you (or at least me) into this child’s-eye-view of never-neverland, forgetting about the larger issues and riding the wave of chaos. At times I thought of it as a 21st century 400 BLOWS. Other times I thought “jesus, remake THE GOONIES with these kids and this exact style. Then maybe I’d like it.” I heard that The Little Rascals was an influence on the movie. I don’t know, maybe that was a joke, but it kinda makes sense.
There is genuine danger here, though. We see that in the great scene where motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL) is on a ladder painting the building and spots an old man approaching the kids who are playing on the other side of the parking lot. Bobby’s way of approaching and getting rid of this presumed pedophile (pretending to be friendly at first, luring him away, chasing him off) is masterful. But what if there was no Bobby? It’s easy to imagine a world where the manager doesn’t have time to pay attention to what’s going on with the kids across the way. Or where he didn’t have to climb up a ladder that day, or that hour.
Bobby is some kind of saint. He lives in a shitty motel room just like the residents and has to put up with more shit than anybody, but chooses to be a bit of a social worker, helping Halley when she gets in trouble, shielding Moonee from bad things going on, exercising lenience when she gets into mischief, or when the rent is late yet again.
I liked him so much that I got a pit in my stomach worrying there would be some twist where he makes a pass at one of them (either mother or daughter would be bad) and is really a piece of shit. SPOILER: He’s not! He’s not! Dare to believe!
Also this is a good movie to see if you want to see a bunch of shots of places like this:
Writer-director Sean Baker has been around since 2000 and this is his sixth movie, but the one I heard of was 2015’s TANGERINE, the one famously shot on iPhones. For this he used 35 mm film, which is amazing considering how clearly improvisational it is. None of the dialogue seems scripted. The kids are young first time actors, the parents are models recruited from Instagram, a few scenes were shot with hidden cameras and unsuspecting tourists, and they managed to film in front of magic hour, a rainbow, a wandering flock of pelicans. Somehow seasoned actors Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones (in a few scenes as his son) fit right into this documentary-esque style. I believe it was in a Director’s Guild Q&A with Baker that I heard he shot some more orthodox exposition type scenes as backup but, as hoped, didn’t need to use them.
I’d never heard of it before, but apparently this a real phenomenon of low income people having to live in these motels in Florida. The Magic Castle is a real place (check out the reviews) and some of the real residents are extras in the movie. That Q&A I mentioned is funny because interviewer Paul Schrader is having a hard time believing that all the brightly colored motels and stuff really came that way. He assumed it was a fanciful exaggeration by the art department. But it’s not a poetic touch, it’s just a sad fact of life that the colorful fantasy world theming is such an ironic backdrop for a life of extreme poverty. This whole area is built to cater to out-of-towners visiting a place the locals could never afford. But for Moonee, who may not think of it that way, the setting really does have a magical effect.
The tone of this movie is a rare one. There’s emotional turmoil simmering under the whole thing, ready to boil by the end. You always feel that. But more often than not you’re viewing this through Moonee’s eyes – enjoying the days without awareness of the larger world. And while Halley’s behavior makes me wonder about her childhood, I’m not left thinking Moonee is necessarily doomed to repeat it. There are all kinds of great people who had shitty childhoods or parents. Maybe it’s not too late for Moonee. I hope it’s not.
I have to say one thing about the ending. SPOILER. To me, this is the weirdest case I’ve ever seen of a basically perfect cinematic experience suddenly having a laughably ridiculous final 20-30 seconds. Intellectually I can understand the fantasy of Moonee, yanked from blissful ignorance about her situation, about to be taken away from the only world she knows, being able to grab her best friend and run away, all the way to Orlando and right into the imaginary sanctuary of Disney World. But the way it happens – a devastating scene of this young actress crying abruptly cuts to goofball happy music over sped-up iPhone footage – is a total headscratcher.
That would be stupid to say that it ruins it, though. This is a movie I won’t soon forget.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.