Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in the shadow of Orlando’s Disney World. Stuck beneath the poverty line, she inhabits a world of knock-off gift shops, tacky tourist attractions, and copyright infringing motels. She stays at the Magic Kingdom with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), whose purple paint and plaster spires evoke Cinderella’s Castle in only the most perfunctory, low-budget manner. Down the road is the Futureland motel, whose only similarity to Disney’s Tomorrowland – other than the barely copyright-avoiding name – is in the two plastic rocket ships attached to the sign.
Moonee’s existence sounds bleak on paper. Her mother is unemployed, hence their long-term residence at a cheap motel. To make ends meet they engage in various schemes, from selling perfume on the street, to hawking stolen Park passes to naïve tourists. But through the lens of director Sean Baker’s camera, and the truly fantastic performances of newcomers and veterans alike, Moonee’s life takes on a wondrous, adventure-filled light. Kool & the Gang’s ‘Celebrate’ plays over the opening credits, before we watch Moonee and her friends romp through the motels, the cheap attractions, the tacky gift shops, and the abandoned housing communities. It may not be the Happiest Place on Earth (despite being a but a stone’s throw away), but Moonee’s world is a wonderland nonetheless.
Brooklynn Prince is a genuine revelation, and an absolute joy to watch. Moonee is a bundle of energy; precocious, commanding, and demanding. She is outrageously rude to the adults that surround her, but her impish grin drains her behaviour of any malice. Bria Vinaite, who was apparently cast through Instagram, is a star in the making. Halley is barely more than a child herself, reckless and irresponsible. Yet she is entirely devoted to her child, and will go to great, and often illegal, lengths to bring up Moonee as best she can. The film’s only big name (other than Caleb Landry Jones in a minor role) is Willem Dafoe, who plays motel manager Bobby. Dafoe is a study in patience, tolerance, and generosity. Don’t be surprised if he receives a Best Supporting Actor nod. In fact, you should expect to see all of these names come awards season.
Sean Baker shot his previous film, Tangerine, on iPhones, which gave Hollywood’s seedy underbelly an immediate energy. Despite the upgrade to 35mm, Baker injects that same energy into the Orlando Strip. There are a few stylistic flourishes; an early sequence is made up of precisely framed shots of the gaudy attractions that populate Moonee’s world – the eye-popping Orange World, a gift shop whose facade is inexplicably a horrifying gurning wizard – as if Wes Anderson had made a film about Florida’s underclass. Most of the film, though, is shot with the same cinéma vérité style Baker used in Tangerine. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe suffuses everything with a diffused, dreamlike glow, enhancing the purples and oranges and yellows of this vibrant, marginal community. Along with Baker’s low angle child’s perspective set ups, The Florida Project‘s cinematography gives the impression that this is not this world as it is, but this world as Moonee sees it.
There is a lot that Moonee doesn’t see, that we do. To her, selling perfume with her mother is nothing but a game. We’re not so naïve. We see it for what it really is: a desperate scraping for pennies. We see, too, the greater lengths to which Halley will go to pay the rent, the unsavory acts to which Moonee is completely oblivious. Like Tangerine before it, The Florida Project is a window into a hidden world, a world of poverty and privation that the temple to capitalist excess that is Disney World would rather we didn’t see. The Florida Project was a working title for what would become the Mouse House’s Orlando resort, an intended “community of tomorrow”. In Baker’s film, the name takes on a biting irony. The Magic Kingdom, Futureland – these are economic projects, slums in which Florida’s underclass struggle for survival.
But Baker has a talent for finding the joy and humanity in his subjects. Even as Halley and Moonee’s situation becomes really desperate, the film never loses its exuberance. Just as it reaches its darkest moment, it ascends into a frantic, breathless sequence of childlike optimism, in which Cinderella’s Castle, the real Magic Kingdom, becomes a heartbreaking symbol of the childhood that could have been. The childhood that was, Moonee’s life of adventure, exploration, and ice-cream, is no less full of wonder from being lived in the forgotten shadow of Disney. The Florida Project is an exuberant and vibrant portrait of a life and a world that can, when seen through the right eyes, contain its own kind of magic.