Somewhere in the swath of central Florida, on the outskirts of Orlando’s “magical” Disney World, exists the 38-dollar-per-night strip motel called The Magic Castle that delivers its own type of magic. Not to be mistaken with the Magic Kingdom, it serves as the setting for Sean Baker’s (“Tangerine”) most recent film, “The Florida Project,” playing at the Michigan Theater. Within these lavender-colored walls, you can find 6 year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, “Monsters at Large”), equal parts adorable and mischievous, the female Tom Sawyer of the story, and her young mom, Halley (first-time actor Bria Vinaite), who is really more like an older sister. Both of them are typically off on their own adventures. The only difference is that Moonee’s adventures include pretending to have asthma to collect spare change for vanilla soft serve to quash the Floridian humidity; her mom’s include smoking carefully rolled blunts and listening to D-list trap music. But despite the tough hand Halley’s been dealt, she does what she can for her daughter.
Baker, like in “Tangerine,” peels back a veil to parts of American life and geography that have escaped popular American consciousness. He does this without a chastising gaze and without neglecting the problems of Moonee’s world, instead infusing the narrative with a sense of curiosity and innocence. After all, it’s shot through the eyes of a child. For Orlando, the giant entertainment complex that drives the city’s economy first comes to mind. But what about the people on peripheries who we don’t see? The ones like Moonee and Halley who struggle to secure weekly rent and can’t even afford the wonderment of Disney World. The ones who eat pizza for dinner but can’t pay extra for pepperoni. Baker quietly lifts off the sparkling cloak of Disney and instead exposes the poverty and mundaneness of the residents in this small forgotten Southern pocket.
Baker paints a superb visual of pastel colored houses and buildings, further illuminated by the peachy Florida sunsets and the glow of sparked cigarettes against the warm horizon. Shot in 35mm, the extreme wide-shot stills of the different tourist locations Moonee and her friends frequent are to be envied by the devotees of Wes Anderson Tumblr pages. Moonee and her friends frequent sites that look painted in an acid-colored manufactured dream, juxtaposed against their tiny kindergarten bodies. This accentuates both physically and metaphorically the vast span and space they have in their world to roam and explore without the guidance of parents. The viewer is instantly submerged into this world, especially with the aid of handheld cameras and diegetic audio, completely devoid of any scene music until the very end. The viewer has no choice but to be totally immersed by the characters’ lives because everything they hear and experience is felt too by the audience. This, in turn, makes their quotidian struggles from boredom to prostitution all the more relatable and, therefore, all the more heartbreaking.
As for our thespians: Prince’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Somehow, Baker channels the neophyte talent of his actors, including Vinaite, whom he discovered on Instagram. Quite successfully, their greenness produces profoundly authentic and raw performances. Even veteran Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man”) doesn’t push his younger collaborators out skill-wise. He only boosts Vinaite’s and especially Prince’s performances.
Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is that Baker didn’t aim to impose a specific emotion onto the audience or overtly push messages or an agenda; everything naturally and seamlessly speaks for itself. No scene was more emphatic or emphasized than the other and it doesn’t follow a typical narrative three-act arc with a climax and resolution. Even when child services come to collect Moonee when Halley is officially seen as “unfit,” the scene doesn’t play as overly tragic and doesn’t pull on the clichéd “kid being taken away from parent” heartstrings.
With “The Florida Project,” A24, the studio that produced the Oscar-winning hit “Moonlight,” appears to be following a similar pattern of tiny stories that leave lasting, gigantic impressions. I wouldn’t spoil the ending for you, but it is magic in itself. As for little Moonee and other children like her, the forgotten ones roaming across the vast American landscape, sometimes, the magic they deserve is out of reach.