In this post, I write about other salient features that make THE FLORIDA PROJECT an engrossing experience, shot with a documentarian eye for everyday details and consisting of excellent embodiment of lives caught in a social undertow by performers BROOKLYNN PRINCE, BRIA VINAITE, WILLEM DAFOE among others .
This story about a bunch of individuals staying put in a budget motel in Orlando, Florida is illuminating on the human condition where innocence and joy, on the part of both children and adults, is clearly linked with the ‘beg, borrow and steal’ ethics of survival for each of them. It has the naturalism of vintage Satyajit Ray, next to the kind I have seen only so far in ROMA(2018) in recent times. Director Sean Baker frames it with the untrimmed edges and compassion of a modern day Charles Dickens.In little Moonee (BROOKLYNN PRINCE), her best friends Scooty (CHRISTOPHER RIVERA), Dicky (AIDEN MALIK) and Jancee (VALERIA COTTO), the golden glow of life’s best years unfolds over a summer. Their trips to ice cream parlours, open spaces, conversations with each other and bonding within their modest sorroundings are all pitched against the threat of eviction, homelessness and struggles of parents who are straight out of teenage themselves and can hardly hold on to steady jobs as they have no qualifications or talents to match. They are at the end of the social rope but their inner beauty is transmitted to us in their love for the kids they have brought to this unforgiving world. They face the odds for them, knowing that nobody will ever look out for them if they don’t whip up survival tactics to last through the day. Halley( an excellent BRIA VINAITE), Moonee’s mother, attests to that. So is Scooty’s mom Ashley ( au natural Mela Murder), who works in a restaurant as a waitress and looks out for the mother- daughter duo.
In capturing micro moments in a linear, day to day structure, THE FLORIDA PROJECT becomes an incorporation of parents and children, especially mothers and daughters who are unmoored in a dangerously slippery existential loop. Set as it is in Orlando, Florida, home to Disney World, it portrays the other side of that honeyed happy ending one would associate with a place like this. Sure there are darker cores in some of the beloved Disney classics that have been immortalized in popular culture but in real life there are no magical resolutions or precedents for such adjustments. The motel, named MAGIC CASTLE , is candy colored like the majority of the city but I think it was time the true to life spirit of its ordinary, lower middle class to poor inhabitants made its way to the screen. Sean Baker does that by also adopting the movie’s title. THE FLORIDA PROJECT was the initial working title for Walt Disney’s dream project back in the day. These lives portrayed here also entail a work in progress though the silver linings are few and far between. The dreams and wish fulfillments are strictly out of their bounds.
While I was watching it and after viewing it in full, I realized how we, residents of developing nations who oversee gradual progress in our everyday accounts, look at the first world as some sort of utopia and America as the cocoon of the world, completely different from our own civic and social apathy and faults. THE FLORIDA PROJECT dismantles that myth, as it is after the universality of experience. The first world ethos is quite far from the rose garden we think it is, evident in the setting. Florida, in itself, is not immune to high statistics of poverty, racial tinges to it while also being diverse on that front and is a state particularly open to a backlog of annual natural disasters. Here it is a kaleidoscope of individual moments, a collage of linearity that inches towards fragmentation as Halley, opting to undertake desperate measures in desperate times for her child, meets a dead end in which social service reps get involved for Moonee’s future and her best friend Ashley shuns her even as the kindly and simultaneously stoic hotel manager Bobby (Oscar nominated WILLEM DAFOE ) is like a surrogate father figure, friend and confidante. He is the only one who looks out for her and Moonee( and the others) But he can’t overturn the dark turn of events as the complexity and sheer haplessness of Halley instinctively gets even Moonee worried that something is not right. Dafoe invests his static stances with bottomless compassion and humanity. He exemplifies the interiority of all he does and is witness to. He is, ultimately, powerless to initiate any extraordinary change. A constant motif is that of the helicopters coming and going, possibly taking tourists and supplies to and from Disneyland. To me, it is symbolic of the circularity of the everyday for these people. Like Dafoe, who has the silent pain of being in a thankless job, the irony of the helicopter appearing with its whirring wings is that a mechanical pattern of things has been set as a norm.
This conflict truly wrenched my soul, especially towards the end and that final tour to Disneyland by Jancee and Moonee is a distraction from the ambiguity of the climax. Moonee breaks our hearts as her fate hangs in the balance and the fun and games get overpowered by realities beyond her tender grasps. Her tearful adieu to Jancee and Scooty is etched in my mind.
Childhood is such a precious entity that even when surface varnish disappears and we subsist on bare minimum, friendships sustain us. Here it is the friendship Moonee shares with her pals and there is the friendship between mother and daughter. Few among us, irrespective of class, gender etc. , receive an ideal passage from childhood towards pre adolescence and in the post 2010 era, the stakes are manifold. But childhood is the only time of our life when we can soar with our imagination and hope for an immediately better tomorrow. No wonder we yearn to go back to it. I do, every day. As do you all. So bless BROOKLYNN PRINCE and her coterie of soulmates.The attention shifts to Halley, her mother, as she is a kid herself, heartbreakingly given to support her daughter’s food and lodging against the odds of being at the lowest rungs of her happy go lucky culture. Together, Moonee and Halley find total bliss. On that tune, I have to applaud BRIA VINAITE for her extraordinary embodiment of the young mom. In terms of awards recognition, I feel she was criminally undermined. She makes us probe a possible backstory stretching all the way to her present circumstance. ABANDONMENT? PARENTAL DEATH? EARLY PREGNANCY that was beyond her control? WAS SHE ORPHANED OR CHOSE TO RUN AWAY TO ADOPT THE STREETS?
We wonder by the closing minutes of THE FLORIDA PROJECT if Halley’s life script will be eventually transported to Moonee by the time she hits teenage though we desperately hope for a miracle / a change. That fight for survival is so different from a traditional patriarchal resolution and this film stays cent per cent true to the facts. Realism is its calling card and biggest strength.
Cinematographer Alexis Zabe, music director Lorne Balfe, writer Chris Bergoch along with Baker and editing by Baker again all contribute to its warmth, melancholy, hope and despair. Plus actors Edward Pagan as Dicky’s father, Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby’s son Jack and an especially memorable Josie Olivo as Stacey, Jancee’s grandmother round out its ensemble excellence.At the end, I asked myself, ‘is displaying contours of underprivileged lives bursting at the seams in cinema worth it? Can a complete, cohesive work like this be deemed poetic? Or is it seemingly exploitative to capture these lives and then forget about it?’
All I can say is THE FLORIDA PROJECT asks us to exercise great empathy for our fellow beings and flows with the everyday rhythms. It is simply unforgettable.