Heartbreaking and realistic, The Florida Project directed by Sean Baker sports a throwback to 35 mm filmmaking. Honoring that medium and trumping the age of digital mastery, Baker spins a troubling tale of family homelessness and poverty. However, amidst dire realities resides the hope of deliverance. Indeed, childrens’ imaginations and child-like wonder triumphs. Authentically, Baker keys in the film’s narrative through the perspectives of children. And he fulfills their viewpoint of the adult world unceasingly and cleverly throughout. As a result, the beauty and tragedy of childhood innocence crashing into harsh truths strikes us deeply.
With a meandering narrative, Baker and Chris Bergoch (co-screenwriter), unspool the daily lives of three six-year-olds. Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancey (Valerie Cotto), have few material pleasures. However, they have their imaginations. With carefree abandon, they feed off each other’s happiness.
While we scamper with them as they run free and unsupervised amidst the tacky, overblown, fast food joints and bankrupt building projects around Orlando, Florida, (2010), their parents struggle to survive. Though the lower middle class motel complex provides cheap shelter, single moms Halley and Ashley scramble from one moment to the next. It would seem that Ashley (Mela Murder) who holds down a job and supervises her child is more successful than Halley (Bria Vinaite). At the least we understand that she attempts to rise above her circumstances. On the other hand Halley avoids confronting reality, lies, steals, and sports criminal behavior. Her disastrous actions belie her love for Moonee. However, as Baker affirms, Halley, childish and rebellious, desperately needs supervision herself. Clearly, she thrives off danger while being a friend to Moonee instead of a parent. Rage-filled, provocational, she totters on the margins of life and death.
Meanwhile, as Ashley works and Halley does little constructively to pick herself up out of the abyss, their children break rules, curse, and gleefully get into trouble. They receive few sanctions. The only rules leveled at them come through father figure Bobby, the hotel manager. As Bobby Willem Dafoe remains the brilliant linchpin whose endearing performance carries the film. Without Dafoe the film would flatline.
Though Halley and Ashley cling to each other for mutual support, explosive emotions spark between them. Eventually, because of an incident the children cause, Ashley bans Scooty from playing with the frenetic, haphazard Moonee. As the love turns to hate, the two women become mortal enemies. Sadly, they seek proper revenge against one another that leads to an inevitable conclusion.
Throughout the squalid, sad, and trying lives of these two homeless families, we watch how their children create their own paradise out of thin air. Sadly, the irony lies in the tyranny of Disney World fallout which looms everywhere in Orlando, Florida.
In particular that real paradise shines wealth, leisure, ecstasy. However, the Disney World gates bar Scooty, Moonee, Jacey because they are impoverished. Nevertheless, they make do with each other despite deprivation and want. Ironically, their makeshift motel playland of dust and dreams heightens the poignancy of their feverish, hyperactive behaviors. Importantly, all occur in the shadow of the fabulous childrens’ heaven on earth. Consequently, whether conscious or not, they must sublimate and ignore the wretched shamefulness of being “have nots.”
Though Moonie’s, Scooty’s and Jacey’s lives appear full, if one has a referent for a finer, more cultured lifestyle, the children seem tragic figures. In contrast they cannot be likened to the Little Rascals who had homes, as dismal as they were. During the Depression era, most of the country suffered deprivation. Indeed, solace came with an easy identification that one’s neighbors faced similar conditions of want. Hence, the wealthy remained hidden except for the fantasy of films, and contrasts between rich and poor seemed less trenchant.
In the currency of our times, the economic extremes between the haves and have nots blare loudly. Thus, the children’s attempts to rise with hope resemble desperate flutterings of caged birds. Will they be able to ever function socially in the middle class? Clearly, Baker and Bergoch infer they most likely never will. Hence the conclusion of the film lifts the children into fantasy. For the reality of their future is bleak at best and horrific at worst, and what remains in between must enter the realm of the hopeful fantastic. Indeed, miracles do happen.
Although Baker avoids the backstory of the two moms and how they arrived at their destitute state, we do not miss the absence of information. Without the particulars they become representative of homeless, struggling single moms everywhere. The contrast between Halley and Ashley becomes the metaphor of selfless motherhood versus negligent child mothers raising children. Where one succeeds, the other devolves. Unless there is intervention, Halley will destroy herself. Sadly, that she threatens to bring Moonee with her “out of love”speaks as an act of extreme selfishness. For Moonee has become the reason Halley lives. Without Moonee, Halley probably will end up dead.
Ultimately, The Florida Project retains charm, poignance, humor, and dark pathos. Though a few segments need editing and become tedious, the narrative retains its singular importance. Because it shines a spotlight on the underclasses, the invisible ones certain social and political cultures ignore, the film promotes a worthy topic. Moreover, the resilience and hope of the children and families who struggle to live with honor despite miserable circumstances, emphasizes their courage. To these the fine performances of the acting ensemble can be dedicated. Ironically, such families will most likely never see the film. For them it would be a sad redundancy.
See The Florida Project online and at various venues in NYC. Also, check future screenings at film festivals on IMBD.