REVIEW: The Florida Project is a Realistic Wonderland

It feels like summer again watching The Florida Project. But this summer takes place in Orlando, Florida, filled with billboards, gimmicky tourist shops, and the Magic Castle — a cheap, bright colored motel that tourists mistake by name for the nearby Magic Kingdom. This is no Disney World, but for the kids living at the motel, it’s just a big playground, completely shown through the bright, pretty shots of the American tourist area. It’s where Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) live, struggling to pay their rent and buy food to eat.

Photo Credit: Variety

But that doesn’t stop Moonee and her friends Scooty and Jancey (Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto) from having fun. They spend their days trying to get vanilla ice cream cones with tourists’ money and shutting down the electric system at the Magic Castle. We follow them around on their daily adventures, and we are again able to feel that remarkable six-year-old sense of innocence.

The motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), acts as the father figure for the film, chasing after the kids and their trail of mischief. But he also looks after the Magic Castle’s longer residents, such as Halley, who at such a young age has no other support. Though they tend to squabble over late payments and the rules of the residence, he cares for her and her daughter's safety. Being in the city home to “The Happiest Place On Earth,” we are exposed to a smaller world of people that do not live in a constant enchantment. The Magic Castle is the reality that not even the home of Disney World can escape.

The title of the film alludes to one of Walt Disney’s earliest names for the Florida theme park and one of the final scenes actually takes us inside the Magic Kingdom. Director Sean Baker, known primarily for his 2015 Tangerine, which was shot completely on an iPhone 5S, explained that "It's not against the law, it's just against the rules, and sometimes you have to break rules to make a film." While the rest of the film is shot on 35mm, the final scene switches to being filmed on an iPhone 6s Plus.

The budget movie was picked up by A24, the entertainment company behind 2017’s Best Picture winner Moonlight, at Cannes Film Festival last May. Baker decided to cast a wide range of actors, from Hollywood stars like Willem Dafoe to Instagram-discovered newcomers like Bria Vinaite. The mostly unfamiliar cast creates a whole new sense of realism for the film.

Photo Credit: Vulture

There’s a lot of humor within the film -- from Moonee’s clever remarks to the kids getting into trouble with Bobby -- but the film has extremely dark undertones. These parents and their kids are struggling, and they have to be creative in their ways of making money. Halley and Moonee sell perfume to people outside the local shopping mall, and when that doesn’t work, she has to turn to other ways.

Baker worked to show audiences the reality of this national problem of “homelessness” living in these motels. While doing this, he explained in an interview with SlashFilm that “[The audience is] spending the summer with the kids. We’re playing with how much the kids would actually be aware of the circumstances around them in the situation they were in,” a likely explanation as to why these shots contain such bright hues rather than dark ones.

It isn’t just the parents’ storylines that have serious moments within the whimsical plot, but the kids also have their moments of sincere realization. Primarily this can be seen when the kids accidentally set a nearby abandoned motel on fire. Within their moment of adventure and fun, these six-year-old kids create severe destruction.

There are also parts where the kids’ innocence is best defined in awful situations, such as when the film introduces issues of pedophilia. The ability to recognize such situations amongst humorous periods and a colorful setting is what makes Baker’s film so brilliant in creation. It’s familiar because it’s real.

Baker creates a world in which we are completely immersed. We aren’t viewers, but rather characters who run through the streets with Moonee and her friends and endure her same pain when she later faces family struggles. The Florida Project is not just good, but one of the greatest films of the year. To watch this film is an experience, and despite Baker’s many risks during the making of the film, the end product is a realistic work full of pain and wonder.

The Florida Project is now playing at AMC Loews, Kendall Cinema, and Coolidge Corner Theatre

 

Cover Photo Credits: CU Independent

 

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