With The Florida Project, Sean Baker walks a very fine line. Like in his last film Tangerine, he’s examining a group of people marginalized by society. But the movie refrains from being either a sentimental sermon or dismissive caricature. It lives somewhere in the middle. Offering some truly trashy and often hilarious moments with some sober reflections on modern society.
The film takes place just outside of Orlando, Florida. It’s a liminal space, torn between harsh reality and the artificial, picture-perfect world of tourism. The film’s title reflects this strange duality. The ‘project’ brings to mind public housing and underserved populations—violence, drug use and prostitution. But the title also refers to the early concept name for Walt Disney World—a sugar-coated fantasy where everything is singing animals and the promise of happiness. This isn’t Disney World, but rather a stretch of highway largely forgotten but still designed to ensnare whoever wanders down it. Tourist traps abound, like Machine Gun America, a bevy of cheap souvenir shops shaped like wizards, mermaids and more, and budget motels themed after fairytale castles and 1950s visions of the future.
One of these motels serves as home for the film’s central characters: six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). The events unfold over one summer, with Moonee wandering in and out of various misadventures with her friends and Halley engaging in various (most often illegal) money-making schemes. Both are watched over by the the motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Dafoe is excellent, and Bobby is an interesting character, both attempting to shield Moonee and Halley and maintaining a careful emotional distance. He’s levelheaded and knows the world doesn’t care about his patrons, yet he can’t keep himself from caring.
Some viewers may find The Florida Project deeply unpleasant. Afterall, it centers around a child living in circumstances that are far from ideal. The film isn’t willing to condemn this way of life either. It may be messy and sad to most of us, but it’s all some people have. Hey, life’s not a Disney movie. Although the film’s ending does seem to break with the realism of the rest of the film. It’s quite weird and may leave you asking, “Huh? How?”
Cake Rating: No cake necessary, but if the movie’s got you feeling down, you can always grab a Disney cupcake.