THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Director: Sean Baker
Writers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Stars: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Mela Murder, Christopher Rivera,
Aiden Malik, Valeria Cotto
Halley stays in one of the cheap motel’s that set alongside Walt Disney World in Orlando, she shares the small room with here small daughter Moonee and gets by on welfare, her best friend feeding her daughter from the back of the restaurant she works at and hustling people in hotel parking lots. She has little time for anyone and no respect for authority and most other people in her life. Her daughter Moonee whilst equally disrespectful is just a child and spends the summer holidays pranking people, investigating things and sometimes hustling with her mothers. Bobby runs the motel and whilst trying to keep order and the business running by the rules, he cannot help but have a soft spot for the children and more than a little empathy for their parents, even perhaps when he should not always do so.
The Florida Project drops us into the world of a class of people living off the welfare of the state, poverty line jobs and whatever other way they can graft money but makes no excuses and does not off explanations for the whats, whys or wherefores. These people are as you see them. Consequently, you see the rough-edged and mean-spirited nature of Hallee and no excuses or mitigating circumstances are offered. She could be a victim of her life or she could indeed be a ‘bad lot’ and always going to end up this way. The director/writers say make your own mind up. This is definitely a strength. The Florida Project says, ‘this is what these people are now’.
Likewise, the story is clearly a love-letter to the balmy days of being a six-year-old, to Moonee and her tiny version of the ‘Hole in the Wall Gang’ it is all fun and adventure. She does not, indeed cannot, see the life she is living is not a great fun playtime, because for her it is.
Bobby, the motel manager, a strong showing yet again from Willem Dafoe, is as close as we get to a moral centre in the film, he works hard, tries to keep things in order, but also tries to understand the people who stay in his establishment. He tolerates the children and their, at times rambunctious behaviour, because he also knows the circumstances, they are in. He is as close to a surrogate for the viewer as you are going to get. I suspect for the average adult the children in this film would not be as much fun as they appear in the film. What is presented as fun and adventure from their point a view for most of us would be annoying, disruptive and downright illegal behaviour from our point of view but like Bobby most of us would try to understand them and give them a lot more leeway as children than any adult would ever get.
Empathy for the kids is a given, for the adults, in particular Hallee, it is difficult. There is admirably no lecturing or sympathy toward her and whilst her friend, admirably played by Mela Murder, works hard at a fast-food restaurant Hallee does everything to gain and extra dollar other than actually work. In a passing remark she does mention there is no work up or down ‘the strip’ and her friend will get her a job in the restaurant as soon as they start hiring again but Hallee seems more than happy to scam, grift and eventual resort to prostitution. The film really strains your ability to feel sorry or empathise with Hallee is you are that type of person by showing all the worst traits of her personality and highlighting her appalling behaviour.
This is not to say The Florida Project is a dark and depressing film. Without the strong sense of humour throughout the film, the firm moral centre Bobby anchors you in and the sense of wonder and fun the children have this would be a truly awful film, but Sean Baker and the writers have added this which gives the entire film a huge lift and makes it watchable and not a drudge. The lights are dimmed and then it gets darker as we venture more into Hallee’s side of things and the path that mother and daughter are leading down is inevitable and again not shied away from or sugar-coated. You know it is going to happen about fifteen minutes into the film.
The colour palette of the film is bright and generally vibrant and there are a lot of wide angled shots shown from the children’s point-of-view. This is a clever touch by the makers as much of the film follows their journeys through the hot summer days.
It must be noted that apart from Willem Defoe, who is the anchor for the film as both a character and actor, all the other actors taking part were first-time or inexperienced thespians, but they all give good performances, some of those who took part were indeed living in strip motels at the time. The children in particular, as is often the case, are how such a film succeeds or fails, in this case The Florida Project succeeds. Further to the sense of realism the characters seen during the run time were the real people living in the real motel the story was filmed at, which apparently kept running as a business during the entire shooting time.
The Florida Project is one of those films you can get immersed in without really realising that you are getting lost in the story of these people. There is no huge story to follow but like real life just vignettes as things happen that perhaps should not, are fun, or at time depressing. Like life really. There does have to be a point, no grand lessons are learned, and when you drift out of someone’s life it carries on.
Some will find The Florida Project dull and long and about people they do not care about and probably hate, others will see it as a slice of real life about real people that whether you like them or not they are out there in the areas that if you are lucky enough you do not visit or experience.