Fantasy in "The Florida Project" is serves as a vital component for existence and a dangerous facade.
For 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) the illusion granted by childhood masks the reality of the hopelessness of their circumstances. They survive and thrive because they can't comprehend the scale of their lives, but the realities of what their world is really like resides just above their heads, controlled by adults who can't quite seem to understand the gravity of their responsibilities. Few characters in this movie have their heads above the sand.
The marvelous "The Florida Project" skirts the fine line between fantasy and reality throughout, juxtaposing the children's antics and shenanigans – some playful, others far more reckless – against the hardship of their existence. It's the little moments of innocence that make this movie, in effect a series of escapades capturing a fateful summer for Moonee and friends. as fun and joyful as it is.
It's great to watch them banter as they try to con people out of money to buy ice cream cones or share jelly sandwiches while sitting on a fallen tree. One of the more memorable scenes is a simple birthday celebration for Jancey where Moonee and Moonee's mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) tell Jancey that the fireworks are going off to celebrate her birthday. It's a lovely, perfect little moment of escapism for Jancey, a small moment of joyful solipsism for a child who doesn't get those enough.
Setting the film as a series of short adventures allows for an easier contrast between those bits of joy and the starkness of their reality. They are incredibly poor, barely able to pay the rent to live in rundown hotels tainted by a variety of criminal activities. Their innocence is really the only thing that shields Moonee, Jancey and Scooty from the realization of their plight and the possible dangers associated with living in a hotel with little adult supervision save hotel manager Bobby (a terrific Willem Dafoe).
For most of "The Florida Project" the kids are on their own hiding about in the parking lot, underneath staircases, or out in the middle of possibly alligator-infested lands. That no physical harm comes to any of them is a testament to luck and Bobby keeping a really, really good eye on them.
They are effectively latchkey children, although "The Florida Project" is director Sean Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch avoid placing blame on the parents for the lack of oversight.
Scooter's mother Ashley (Mela Murder) spends most of her time working as a waitress in a nearby diner, trying to earn enough to afford the hotel's weekly rent. Jancey is cared for by her grandmother (Josie Olivo) who does about as well as she can to offer a stable home. Halley is the wildcard, a young woman with little regard for authority and a free-spirited nature inherited by her daughter.
Her parenting skills include little discipline and a less than healthy diet for her and her daughter, but she is not depicted as a bad mother. Rather, she's simply out of her element, clearly unsure of how to raise a child aside from offering love and any amount of support she can give. Halley is living in her own dream world, although when reality eventually does hit it strikes very, very hard.
It's not like this movie gives Moonee and company a lot of options either. They live a stone's throw away from Disney World and the manufactured wonderment it has to offer. The only thing worse than ersatz fantasy is being surrounded by bootleg versions of that false fantasy, the outlet shops and Orlando shops that promise "real" Disney items. They even live in a hotel called The Magic Castle, a place that is about as far away from the Magic Kingdom as it sounds.
They're stuck living in a place that pales in comparison to a better version that promises a false fantastical experience, a simulacrum of a profitable simulacrum. So it makes sense then for "The Florida Project" to conclude with wish fulfillment. In this movie, hiding in dreams remains the best tactic even as reality comes crashing down around you.
Rating: Four and a half out of Five Stars
Target audience: Indie movie lovers and people interested in movies about people who are down and out.
Take the whole family?: Most of the more adult aspects to this movie are hinted at, so the rating is a little harsh. Teenage and up are fine with this.
Theater or Netflix?: This is a great little film, so it's totally worth a theater trip if it is screening near you.
How great is Willem Dafoe?: Pretty wonderful. Dafoe gives adds charm and decency to a character that could have across as gruff and stern without the actor's touch. Dafoe makes it clear his character has accepted his lot and life and does the best he can to accept what he has.
Watch this as well?: "The 400 Blows" and "The Spirit of the Beehive" have darker overtones than this movie, but they share the same concept of childhood as an escape from misery. For a more recent option, check out "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Run time: 115 minutes
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