This is one of those movies that gave me so many reasons to love it that I just couldn’t help myself. The Florida Project tells the kind of story that is plucked from the world right around us, and therefore is one of the hardest to tell. How do you tell the story of someone we most likely have seen this week without inflating it to some unearned peak or condemning it to some dark fate, without tuning it to our well-synced cynicism, and still manage to keep it compelling? I wonder if I can articulate the answer, but I can say if you watch this film you can see it manifested in a work. Warning…all kinds of spoilers below!
Keeping it real
Ok, so how many times have I read or though that a story just felt so real? So many times. Often, though, if I’m totally being honest, its a really fantastic approximation of what I think would be real, but it’s just not. Or it is, but its so rough or tied to a very specific context that I fell like an alien in this world I’m trying to inhabit, and I feel like a fraud. The children in The Florida Project save us from that dilemma. Brooklynn Prince maneuvers in the world as if the camera doesn’t exist, and I don’t mean she was able to act in front of a camera, ignoring its presence. Many children, if given the opportunity to perform, will do just that. For many of them, it comes pretty natural. It felt as if Prince was set on a path in the world she was pretending to be in, and just went to it in a way where she was able to block out the camera’s existence. Kids, left to their own devices, go to weird places that don’t really go anywhere, or loop back to anything, often without being self-conscious, without reservation, operating by impulse and trying to find some way to regulate their internally disregulated selves. This is exactly what these kids, led by Prince were doing.
Bria Vinaite was so fucking spot on in her role as Halley. There were so many ways this could have gone down the hooker with a heart of gold path, but that kind of reductive characterization of Halley would have killed the film. Vinaite’s Halley is in a very specific place in a long arc that we will never really see in either direction. She is where she is for reasons we aren’t told, and honestly don’t need to know, and a year from now everything is likely to be a transformed life one way or another. Over these few days, we see her at the place where she isn’t quite a child anymore, but has few skills to be an adult, and has been getting by on through wit and charm and beauty and various hustles, all of which are about to collide with a wall that she just won’t see coming. She is floating through life, just like Moonee, and pulls them from one dreamy moment to the next, with no real plan that could even remotely sustain them. She revels in her time with Moonee in a tender and precious way, with a love that is deep and fierce and sadly, tragically, unfairly not enough.
Can we talk about Willem Dafoe? In so many ways this felt like a movie about Bobby. Bobby knows what he’s doing, and I don’t mean he has a plan for how its all going to work out. What Bobby knows is that he’s come to love the shit out of the people in the Magic Castle, especially it often seems, Moonee and Halley. He’s not looking to save them, he’s not looking to judge them, he doesn’t care where they came from and won’t have anything to do with where they will end up. What he can do, and id heroic for it, is to make sure that they can stay safe and somewhat cared for in a way station in or out of a much better or worse place. He has made this dingy little place a community, in all of its complexity, without rules that no one could follow, nor anarchy that would destroy them all. He holds really difficult, shifting lines that are impossible to discern sometime with nuance and grace. It is a wonder to watch.
The things that matter
Ice cream. Adventures. Sunsets and sunrises. Heat. Water. Waffles. There are, of course, more important things going on in the world, but the real care is placed on these small things. It is in the small things that the big things are revealed, and not in a gimmicky “hey, look at me, I’m being clever in showing you this deep thing.” It’s how a child would see the world, through the lens of what was right in front of them, and this is where the film really stands out for me. In particular the bathtub scenes were brilliant. We return to the bathtub periodically, and at first it’s easy to think that these are just another set of vignettes, but there was always something in the back of my mind saying something’s not quite right here. For me, I had the revelation about what was going on just as it was pretty blatantly revealed when a man walks in and is shocked to find a kid in the bathtub, and Halley yelling at him in the background about the bathroom being off limits. We never see either of them, only Moonee who has just had her tiny, fragile bubble of safety burst, and who gives a look that reflects all the complex emotions a child might feel…fear, confusion, annoyance, loneliness. I add the last emotion because it’s rare that anything stands between Moonee and Halley, and when they’re together, they’re tightly connected. In this scene, Moonee felt as if she were on a raft on her own, separated from her mother, confronted by a somewhat menacing stranger. In many ways it was the hardest moment in the movie for me.
Overall, this feels like such a masterful film, but I have to admit mixed feelings about two things: the creepy old dude/pederast/pedophile and the final shaky scene in Disneyworld. My complaints are really more of questions about why Sean Baker chose to go in those directions as they felt like standout moments, and in a story that is so nuanced and organic, standouts should have an important purpose. So creepy old dude…I feel like he was included more to establish Bobby’s character as the worldly, paternal hero, and in contrast to his raspy gentleness it showed that he had credentials to protect his fold from the dangers from the outside world. It’s obvious that there are threats to children who live in the motel, but the beauty of this movie is that it doesn’t assault you with them on a regular basis, rather it let’s them linger in the background, often unspoken, but never obscured. This was such an in your face threat that it could serve to close the audience up and might desensitize them to the more subtle dangers that lurk.
Also, the ending. Baker has said this: “And, in the end, with this inevitable drama, this is me saying to the audience ‘if you want a happy ending, you’re gonna have to go to that headspace of a kid because, here, that’s the only way to achieve it.'” I’m not sure what to do with this. Compared to the tightly composed and shot film we’ve just seen, the shaking, digital scenes of Moonee running in the park are definitely jarring, and we are left to wonder if this is real, or if it’s some fantasy. Is it her fantasy? Is it Bakers? Is it ours? I’m not 100% sure, and while I think there are a million worse ways to end that story, this one left me hanging a bit.