The Florida Project reveals life on the margins [you will cry]
“The Florida Project” doesn’t work if it isn’t set in Orlando. It helps that the entire state of Florida looks like it’s from another planet, but it’s the particular we-don’t-belong-here nature of Orlando that makes Sean Baker’s film really tick. If you’ve been to America’s tourism capital, or if you know enough to have built a stereotype in your head, nothing you see on screen surprises you.
It starts with the color palette. Who wants to look at the purples of the Magic Castle our hero, Moonee, lives in? Or the oranges we see on the highway (referred to most commonly as “the strip” in the film)? Originally coated in the darker-than-pastel colors to match the Magic Kingdom, these hotels-turned-homes are just sad now.
There’s a documentary quality to “The Florida Project,” and I mean that as a compliment. It takes on a real-life feel, which brings gravity to the proceedings. While Moonee, Jancey and Scooty concern themselves with scrounging up enough money to buy ice cream, and killing time during Summer break, it never feels whimsical. This isn’t Spielberg.
The happy moments, like free waffles, or sitting on a tree eating bread with jelly, are savored. They feel real, genuine and above all else, temporary. That’s where “The Florida Project” succeeds most of all. While the gang of kids goes about its day-to-day adventures, the adults endure meaningless struggle.
There’s no montage where Moonee’s mother, Halley, gets her life in order. The manager of the hotel they live in, Bobby (played excellently by Willem Dafoe), never gives a great speech about getting her shit together. While you might get the sense these people care for one another, there’s not much hope anything will get better for anyone.
Baker infuses a horror-like quality to the proceedings. The sun rises, the kids go on an adventure and Moonee is recruited to help her mom scheme tourists out of money. Moonee might not know she’s in danger, but the audience is forced to feel the hair on the back of their neck stand up again as a mother at the end of her rope again puts a child in danger.
A notion in popular, or at least award-winning film, that tragedy is attached directly to wasted potential. “The Florida Project” challenges that by focusing its story on characters whose potential is never addressed. We join Halley well after she can be saved; or, well past the point she cares about being saved. She’s volatile and dangerous, but loves her child. She’s complicated, and the film treats her with respect.
That makes it tough to sit through. Of course, a film this American should be tough to sit through. It takes place in a town whose median income is well below the national average, and is below the average of its own state. Orlando also welcomes in tourists with more money than god himself to opulent resorts, which means you get the kind of wealth inequality on display that has made America infamous.
“The Florida Project” is an incredibly powerful movie about those who live on the margins. It doesn’t offer solutions, big speeches about the nature of life or even much in the way of hope. What it shows is a little bit of truth in a world that could use a dose of it.