Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.
A motel society splashed with purple and pink. Kids free to roam and wander and even try their hand at hustling for ice cream and goodies. Parents—many of whom are kids themselves in need of a little guidance—carelessly look on, buying their kids and themselves sugary goods to get by on. A manager of the motel, a familiar face known by all, can’t seem to get the place to its best, most livable quarters.
Is this a Florida motel life? Or is a darker, seedier side of the beloved Disneyworld at stake?
The Florida Project imagines a Florida right along the outskirts of Disneyworld, where magic is not bestowed by any fairy godmother but through experience in the natural world. The film presents a unique—if sometimes, disturbing—view of objective parenting so far removed that children have the freedom to run and play and behave however poorly they wish, all in the name of obtaining a life without handicaps. It is an attempt by director Sean Baker (Tangerine) to challenge the numbing fantasies surrounding Disney parks with real, unadulterated life.
In typical realist fashion, Baker’s camera follows Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) around the projects. Without a central plot, we are asked to attach to characters. As kids do, the trio find trouble, not only with the managers and residents at the motel, but even in their own families. Their activities even become criminal at times, as their parents sometimes ask them to hustle for rent or ice cream cone money.
Yet, in Baker’s eyes, this is the most pure and magical view of adolescence. All three kids come from parents limited by their socio-economic status, and Baker seems to suggest that child rearing is the last thing these kids need to be a part of the magic in the world. Certainly, this philosophy is a tough pill to swallow.
The most complex and inwardly enigmatic character is Bobby, the hotel manager, played by Willem Dafoe. He is asked to anchor much of the film, and he offers a gentle, humble portrait of a flawed father-type (suggesting the cracks and flaws cut through Walt Disney, perhaps). For Dafoe alone, it is a most worthwhile film.
That is a lot of responsibility for a supporting character, however. Baker has put together a fine ensemble of child performers, and Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee’s passive young mother, is also excellent in doses. The film runs into its issues in two ways. First, it is stylistically derivative of hyperrealistic Wes Anderson story, and sometimes too precocious for its own good. Secondly, there is a severe lack of character trajectory. As a whole, everybody remains the same, and Baker seems to lash out at all of adulthood, not just adults and parents, but social services and other help as well.
The Florida Project is, all at once, not a bad film but a deeply puzzling one. What, exactly, does Baker believe about adolescence? It is a film worth discussing. Due to the high volume of unacceptable language and sexual content, Dove cannot approve The Florida Project.