The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

When I stay in motels, the last thing I think about are the people who actually live there. In a way, for us tourists, the motel inhabitants are invisible in their own neighborhood. “The Florida Project,” written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, forces our eyes wide open to the realities of forgotten or ignored motel residents. It is not afraid to show their destitution, how community members interact with one another and those in power, how parents treat their children. Although a work of fiction, it creates a tone closer to a documentary.

The story is told through the eyes of children. It is summer vacation and so Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Dicky (Aiden Malik) go unsupervised most of the day, free to roam in and around the Magic Castle motel which is within walking distance of Walt Disney World. We observe them play, beg for change, buy ice cream, explore abandoned buildings, watch adults scream at one another, and tell one another their hopes and dreams. It is a deeply engaging picture without an expected story arc and therefore the usual trappings involving a look at poverty.

Emphasis is placed is on the children’s resilience. For instance, when faced with a problem, like not having money to buy ice cream, Moonee tells her new friend (Valeria Cotto) that they can actually get ice cream for free. They must ask strangers for change. But the screenplay is brilliant, you see, exactly because the emphasis of the dialogue is on the silver lining—getting the cold dessert for free. But the action emphasizes having to put in the time to actually acquire the snack.

Having had experience working with children, some of them from poor families, I found this observation to be disarmingly honest. Based on my own observations, kids, especially those who come from low-income families, learn to put a positive spin on the challenges that face them. The ice cream example is only one of many sharp details. Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite), consistently behind on rent, cannot send her daughter to the theme park and so Moonee must pretend that the abandoned motel several yards away is a giant haunted mansion. She has no access to safari tours in the world renowned park and so she must pretend that the animals behind the motel are creatures that she imagines to be living in the actual park. The world becomes her playground.

Much like the ostentatious color of the motel, we see through the children’s eyes in similar flashy colors. Look deeper and you will see the effects of long-term neglect of some of the children: how dirty their clothes look; how they speak to their elders; how, when indoors, they are always watching television or playing on the iPad and never reading books; the unhealthy food and drinks they put in their mouths. Not once does the film hammer the viewers into paying attention to these images. They are there to be noticed if one so chooses to look.

Director Sean Baker should be proud of this most humanistic project for it nudges audiences to look at a group of people we choose to ignore because looking at them makes many of us feel uncomfortable. The picture is also admirable for its craft. Adapting an observational, naturalistic approach, the meaning of the story will likely differ between you and me.

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