The Florida Project (2017)
Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
Directed by Sean Baker
Moonee is a six-year-old girl living in Kissimmee, Florida with her young mother, Hailey. The pair stays at the Magic Castle, a low rung motel where Moonee pals around with her friends Scooty, Dicky, and Jancy getting into tons of trouble The hotel manager, Bobby, tries to keep things in line but finds the girl and her mother to be incorrigible. The kids are desperate for fun over this long summer and discover it where they can. Hailey keeps her daughter in the dark about their money problems but finds the stress growing.
The Florida Project is a masterpiece and one of the most honest films I’ve ever seen about childhood, particularly children in the 21st century. Despite rough circumstances and a paycheck to paycheck life, Moonee remains unaware and joyous. For the majority of the film, the camera follows Moonee and her friends at their level, floating behind as they scam people out of ice cream money or terrorize Bobby. We can feel the playfulness of the characters vividly, and director Baker wants to make sure we know the movie is from the perspective of these little protagonists.
It would be dangerously easy for The Florida Project to slip into harmless sentiment. That’s often the case with films that deal with poverty. A filmmaker becomes too worried about being too harsh to his mostly middle-class audience that they soften the blows. Baker diminishes nothing about Moonee’s life. Hailey loves her daughter but doesn’t have the necessary opportunities to create a safe, healthy life. Moonee isn’t given any sense of discipline, and as a result, rifts form between Hailey and her friends with children. Others are trying to instill a sense of responsibility and respect for their kids, but Hailey is still a kid herself. We don’t dislike Hailey though, she is a strongly sympathetic character.
Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee and delivers one of the best performances of this year. She is playing herself, for the most part, Baker lets her very childish and loving personality come out in many improvised scenes. You may start to think this is just an instance of turning a camera on and letting a child be a child. However, the emotional force she produces in the final scene of the picture stunned me. I could feel my own hot tears sliding down my cheeks overwhelmed by the power of this young lady’s performance. In interviews, she continually states that she wanted to tell the story of children who live on the fringes in Orlando, brought there by parents who thought they could make a better life and continue living on the edge of their lives being upended.
Supporting Brooklynn is Bria Vinaite as Hailey. I’ve worked in public schools for eleven years, mostly in schools that service low-income communities and I have met many Haileys. Circumstances and the privilege of others have left these young mothers in cycles of poverty they literally cannot escape. They do the best they can for their children with what means they have, but because of economic and social elements in their environment, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a home. If they can find work the hours required and the low wages paid force them to work continuously or get multiple jobs meaning they cannot spend time with their children and depend on friends and neighbors for free childcare. The one who can’t find jobs self-medicate through alcohol and drugs to try and have some semblance of joy. Hailey was never going to win at the end of this film, Baker knew this. He told a painfully honest story about a large segment of the United States.
There are two takeaways I believe Sean Baker wanted for the audience of The Florida Project. The first takeaway was that children are capable of finding joy in the toughest of circumstances. The second was that we have forgotten beautiful, needful people in our world, forgotten them with such ease because we can casually say “Well, that’s not my problem.” We label others in a manner that helps us soothe our guilt for doing nothing. The Florida Project is both a celebration and condemnation, a film everyone should see.