In 2014, Boyhood stunned audiences by showing a boy growing up and coming of age over a 12-year span.
The film’s depiction of childhood captured these universally familiar moments so simply, so beautifully. The naturalness of such well-chosen non-actors conjured up a sense of cinema verité magic in a way that most movies cannot. Another indie film that re-captures this sense of magic is this year’s The Florida Project, in theaters this Friday. Writer/director Sean Baker, whose previous film Tangerine (which was shot on an iPhone), tells the story of childhood and the theme of limitless boundaries that either dance around reality or run straight into it.
Quite simply, The Florida Project is a story about kids being kids. Taking place at an extended stay motel where folks and families of all types live while they scrape together next month’s rent, the kids scurry through the stairs and parking lot with a sense of boundless energy that leaps off the screen and into audiences’ hearts. We follow one precocious six-year-old girl, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and friends over one mostly-unsupervised summer. They run, play, and cause mischief throughout a string of motels (called the Magic Castle motel and Wonderland Inn) where they live with their financially-strapped single mothers. Their general safety is overseen by the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who, despite needing to clean the grounds and the bed bugs, keeps an eye on the group of little ankle biters before they zoom off.
To execute a film like this, putting your trust in one largely unproven young star for the audience to follow, would seem like an impossible task – and yet it’s not for Baker, whose casting of Brooklynn Prince makes the film soar. Prince as Moonee is a petite package of rambunctiousness and non-stop energy (which I can attest is her real-life self, seeing her run aimlessly while playing “Marco Polo” at an after party for the film). But although she’s sugar-hopped and manners-deprived, it’s not Moonee’s fault. She is being raised by Halley (Bria Vinaite), a single mother who could easily pass as her older sister.
“The Florida Project,” a beautifully photographed film with such natural performance, is a gentle reminder that while wonderland might be a myth, it’s the wonder of childhood that makes living magical.
Halley is pierced, tattooed, and stoned, and encourages her child’s untethered ways– for who is she but a grown up child herself? Moonee is always brimming with life and charisma, which makes her interactions with Bobby heartwarming ones. This beautiful guardian from afar relationship is brought to life by Willem Dafoe, whose often manic-obsessed performance is dialed all the way down, and he shines in such a humanist light that it must be remembered come Awards season. Dafoe also navigates working with the non-actors beautifully, lending the soft and patient heart that sees him stand as paternal to young Moonee when things go south for her parent.
Director Sean Baker stages these otherwise ordinary moments to give the whole thing fantastic and cinematic flair. We get sucked into the point of view of these kids, where pinks and purples artfully illustrate a depressed artificiality, a run-down fantasy that can’t help but draw attention to itself as the decaying American dream.
Baker, whose previous film Tangerine so eloquently captured and celebrated the fringe society that lives outside the middle-class, does so again here on an even grander scale. The Florida Project even more artfully compels audiences to recognize what Baker is showing as the most glaring hardship of all: the tragic conflict of expectation versus reality in this American life. These motels, so seedy under the weight of once-wonderful facade, live on the outskirts of Disney World itself – road signs, disheartened tourists, and knock-off merchandise further illustrate how they all live in this B-dream of a country.
These snapshots of scenes, stitched together to show the life of these characters day-in and day-out, all culminate and crash down in the film’s tear-jerking final sequence that reminds us that the dream ends, and in the eyes of a child that is nothing short of heartbreaking. The Florida Project, a beautifully photographed film with such natural performances, is a gentle reminder that while wonderland might be a myth, it’s the wonder of childhood that makes living magical.
115 minutes. ‘The Florida Project’ is rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material. Opens this Friday at The Landmark and ArcLight Hollywood.