Six-year-old Moonee rushed up the stairs of Magic Castle with her friends, their steps beating to the frenzied rhythm of a song that was their laughter and screams. A new car was spotted in the parking lot you see, and tradition calls for a spitting contest to baptize the newcomer. The ceremony was soon interrupted by the car owner and the latest tenant of their colorful, rundown motel. After exchanging curses, the mischievous kids ran away giggling.
Similar to director Sean Baker’s previous movie Tangerine (2015), The Florida Project depicts the American underclass, and in this particular case, a community of marginalized people who lived week to week to pay rent for their motel-home. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) are such people. They sell fake brand perfume to tourists staying at expensive hotels, and when they are not working at this profession, Moonee hangs out with her friends without parental supervision.
The Florida Project is full of escapades like the children’s spitting contest, all of them direction-less yet captivating. The kids go wherever their tiny feet take them and perform all kinds of hijinks. And they are an absolute delight to watch. The unbelievably genuine innocence permeates every scene Moonee is in. The magic of childhood is captured with vibrantly colored, child-eye-level cinematography, smart use of ad-libs, and a little bit of luck, or as the director called it: “happy accidents.” When they are being little devils, disarmed by their charm, the sympathetic motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) could only symbolically resist them.
The gang runs around carefree, leaving the worrying to the audience. But sometimes, during one of their adventures, reality creeps in, and sadness bubbles to the surface. It usually manifests in the form of innocent observations. As the film goes on, the struggle of the hidden homeless that had been laid bare since the earliest shots gradually become harder and harder to ignore. The Florida Project handles social issues with an unassuming, judgment-free kindness, and that’s what makes everything extra heartbreaking. The people living in this neglected corner of the world are trapped, and Moonee and other children like her are likely to have very little to no social mobility at all. Uncertainty clouds what happiness these children have. Uncertain, except for the likelihood of them repeating the cycle.
There’s something solemn about the title, the way it presents itself. It demands attention as if it is a documentary. The Florida Project often ingeniously excludes objects from the frame as a way to emphasize, and the method bridges the understanding between screen and audience elegantly. Even when you are not looking, The Florida Project wants you to see. It wants you to take everything in: the laughter, the sadness, the joy in relationships, the struggle, the happy ignorance, the pent-up frustration, the resignation. The final moments of the movie are a tour de force of evoking powerful emotions that left me speechless in my seat during the entire credit scene, and its effect stayed with me long after I’ve left the theater.
The Florida Project is a deeply humane tale viewed through childish eyes and without a doubt one of 2017’s best films.