Poverty breeds ignorance and crime, which in turn become excuses for society to ignore poverty. This is true, and it’s a good place to start thinking about public policy, but it doesn’t make for a good film. What’s missing is the human factor, and since movies are usually made by privileged people for generally middle class audiences, what we get is either sentimentality or what you might call “miserablism,” or both. That’s one of the reasons Sean Baker is an important new filmmaker. His film Tangerine, from a couple years ago, had transgender prostitutes as leading characters while deftly side-stepping such attitudes, but his new film is even more remarkable. The Florida Project is a film of rootlessness and dysfunction, so unusual that nothing could have prepared me for its kind of honesty.
Six-year-old Moonee, played by an amazing little girl named Brooklynn Prince, runs around playing all day, largely unsupervised, with her friends Scooty and Jancey, in a tawdry area of cheap motels and strip malls near Disney World in Orlando. They all live in a motel deceptively called The Magic Castle, which occasionally gets tourists as customers, but for the most part has semi-permanent tenants renting rooms at 38 dollars a day, some of them trying to raise kids while squeaking by on the perilous edge of poverty. Now, you might eventually think that Moonee is cute, but that’s probably not one’s first impression. She’s wild, insolent and disrespectful to all adults, destructive and defiant, a real brat.
Soon we find out where that comes from. Her very young single mother, Halley—outstanding work by newcomer Bria Vinaite—is a tattooed, chain smoking, foul-mouthed hustler who survives mainly by theft and prostitution. It’s a sign of Baker’s confidence and maturity as a director that he doesn’t try to soft-pedal this character. By any objective standard, she’s a terrible mother, and emotionally just as much of a child as Moonee, slipping into rageful tantrums at any provocation. It takes a thoughtful viewer to reflect that she was probably around fifteen when she had Moonie, and that she’s protective towards her daughter rather than emotionally abusive. I’ve known real people like this, and what’s amazing is that the film manages to be truthful without being judgmental. We eventually come to understand Halley for what she is, without having to be cajoled through sentimental or moralistic cues.
Willem Dafoe, the only star name in the cast, plays Bobby, the long-suffering manager of the motel, who is driven almost out of his mind by the chaotic behavior of his tenants, while doing everything he can to protect the kids who live there. He’s a stabilizing influence on Moonie, as much as that’s possible with a child that has no boundaries, and he finds himself giving many more breaks to Halley than the average person could imagine doing, all because he really cares about her and her daughter, despite everything. It’s a rich, marvelous performance, one of his best ever.
But the picture belongs to Moonie. Almost the entire film is from her point of view, and it’s astounding how faithful the director is to that, and how he evinced such natural performances from Brooklynn Prince, and the other kids. In this respect, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Even the best child acting I’ve seen has at least a hint of adult expectations evident in their work. But here that’s completely absent, and this raw quality is sometimes even a little alarming in a film about children. In addition, the presence of Disney World in the background, the antithesis of everything we are witnessing in the movie, lends a steady note of sad irony that comes to a moving fruition in the film’s final scene. I was stunned, blindsided by The Florida Project, a work of art emerging from the poorest and most unexpected place I could imagine.