If there be one thing The Florida Project keeps conspicuously absent from its frames, it is Disney. The film is set on the fringes of Disney World Florida in the underserved, underassisted world of the long term American poor. Willem Dafoe is Bobby, the all-around manager and super of The Magic Castle, a roadside motel home to the tourists travelling daily in and out of the park and a small contingent of long term residents with nowhere else to go.
This decaying structure with its lurid purple and yellow paint scheme (gorgeously shot by the great Alexis Zabe) is the playground of Moonee, Scooty and Jancey. They’re small kids, maybe something like five, six years old confined to the area over the summer break, their parents concerned enough in keeping up with the rent every week to dote on their children.
So that’s why Disney’s silence is so deafening here. The film concerns itself with beauty and wonder, specifically that which is to be found and appreciated by children, yet we are kept alienated from its source. The happiest place on earth consuming and draining so much from the surrounding area that the life and the joy must be snatched from it, fleeting moments and grasping hands.
Which Sean Baker deftly achieves here. There a Criterion video of him a few years back saying that for his next project he’ll be working with child actors. He says he’s got to study, figure out how that relationship works. It feels like the one he arrived to is based on the solid foundation of play. Improvisation is sure another tool in the filmmaker’s handbook and I don’t wanna give it too much credit here, but so much of this is full of raucous, vibrant life that it’s hard to untangle.
The young actors: Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto hold so much chaos and uncertainty and potential in every footstep that it hard to quantify. They ain’t out of control here, the entire runtime is an exercise in knowing uncertainty. Bouncing rapidly between the radical and the banal, trusting that a responsible enough hand be kept on the wheel that we aren’t gonna go nowhere exploitative or mean.
Take a scene very late on in the movie, one which casts Moonee as Antoine in The 400 Blows, her confessional over a breakfast table is held and explored with the same quiet reverence that Godard displayed all those years ago. There’s a lot of Antoine in Moonee, she just too young to see it yet, both of them live their life on the fucking edge.
Nestled in alongside the kid antics we see the lives of their parents and guardians. Moonee’s mother Halley is out of a job, going from one grift to another. She sells knock off perfume outside the forecourts of nicer hotels, hustles gullible tourists at the roadside, grabs free lunches from her friends in the food service, dances sometimes in the local strip clubs. She says she’s trying to get full time work but that may just be a way of life that fundamentally unsuited for her.
Newcomer Bria Vinaite embodies this character with an entrepreneur’s spirit, someone with literally nothing and no way to get anything who nevertheless demands more outta life. She may have her problems, may be on occasion venal, self-absorbed, aggressive, cowardly. She may not have the resources to give her child a normative life. But she is not a villain, and Vinaite’s refusal to play her that way is the right choice.
She bounces offa Dafoe, holding her own against this veteran legend, communicating in screams and wails and spontaneous gesticulations. For his part, Bobby is the endless wellspring of generosity and patience that you’d need to be managing the Magic Castle. He watches over the kids, provides support for the residents, and defends them from the owner’s wild demands. He is a constant presence, but still the one who gotta ask them for their rent every week, he’s still the one who’ll be kicking them out if they don’t pay up.
Compassion can only take you so far in life. But in art it knows no bounds. Even when things seem to be hurtling rapidly towards disaster, Barker has proven time and again that he is to be trusted with the material. His stunning kindness and empathy and humanity blaze outta this fucking joint like a signal flare. It feels so raw and so knowing.
Even outside Disney there’s still beauty to be found.
The Florida Project releases in the UK November 10th.
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