Bria Vinaite (left) and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project
Just outside Disney World in Orlando, alongside discount souvenir shops and fast-food restaurants, sits a cheap-looking motel painted purple, the Magic Castle. Hoodwinked tourists sometimes land there, thinking they’ve booked a Disney property. But the “purple place,” as the locals call it, is mostly home to a shifting cast of hard-luck cases, one step away from homelessness. Unsupervised kids play in the parking lots while their parents consume intoxicants and scuffle for rent.
One kid stands out: 6-year-old Moonee (played by Brooklynn Prince), a natural-born chatterbox and leader of the juvie mischief. Her mother, Halley (first-timer Bria Vinaite), devotes much of her time to reselling perfume to tourists or turning tricks in the motel room while Moonee chills in the bathtub. The Magic Castle’s long-suffering manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), is predictably grumpy cleaning up the various messes his guests leave behind, but we can see he takes an almost paternal interest in these families.
With this kind of setup, we’d expect The Florida Project to be a thoroughly grim portrait of the American underclass. But Moonee and her friends, foraging for food and pulling pranks, are good for loads of laughs, not all of them pathetic. Down-and-outers like these are the calling card of writer-director Sean Baker, whose Tangerine, a narrative profile of transgender streetwalkers in Hollywood, was one of the liveliest and most gratifying surprises of 2016. Sex workers, hamburger waitresses, and their children are people, too, Baker assures us. And each one of their stories is unique.
There’s a strong whiff of social commentary in Baker’s look-see, but always presented with a sense of humor. We explore the abandoned office buildings, restaurant back doors, and cluttered motel rooms just off Seven Dwarfs Lane through the eyes of Moonee, Halley, and Bobby. One motel unit has a major bedbug infestation. A senior citizen insists on sunbathing without her bikini top, despite the kids’ jeers. A charity food van drops off free eats, heavy on the sweets — Moonee seems to subsist on candy and soda. Bobby catches a trespassing middle-aged pedophile chatting up the kids. Halley peddles stolen timeshare-property ID bracelets to suckers. She and Moonee sneak into a hotel’s breakfast buffet. One kid sets a deserted building on fire just for fun. At first glance the film’s title might suggest a study of a research project, but the “welfare slum” where Moonee lives is a housing project, pure and simple, despite its Fantasyland name.
Dafoe’s performance as Bobby is superb, a guardian angel for the 21st century. Meanwhile, sparks of maternal angst shine through the dazed stratagems of Vinaite’s Halley. But it’s little Ms. Prince who sets the tone and makes The Florida Project such a big film in a small wrapper. Filmmaker Baker is definitely onto something here. His “poverty tour” is actually life-affirming and bursting with character.
The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker. With Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite. Opens Friday.