The Florida Project Luridly Discolors the American Dream


Directed by Sean Baker
A24, 115 minutes, R (language, distress)

Few words in the English language vary so much in meaning according to context as "project." We use it to mean displaying an image, making our voice more forceful, or transferring our faults onto another. Change how you say it and it means a task and that one also has shadings, as in chosen hobbies, a work assignment, a personality in need of an upgrade, or an infrastructure undertaking. Of all its meanings, though, the saddest is when we use it as a synonym for ghetto. The last of these is the intended meaning in The Florida Project.

Looking for a feel-good movie. If so, set your GPS a thousand miles in the opposite direction of any place showing The Florida Project. That shouldn't be too hard, as this isn't the sort of film likely to be (ahem!) projected at a mall near you. Malls, after all, are repositories of material desire and The Florida Project is about how hopes die in the very shadow of glitz, fantasy, and conspicuous consumption. It was filmed in Kissimmee, Florida, which you probably recognize as the home of Disney World. Yet The Florida Project dares suggest that the American Dream is bullshit in Technicolor wrapping paper. It is the very essence of a "tough" film, but it's also one of the year's  best. 

Luridly colored hotels sit in plain sight just blocks from the Disney World entrance. To destination-bent motorists these bright purple, Pepto-Bismol pink, peppermint green, and sea-foam green edifices look a bit worn, but cheerful enough; that is, unless one mistakenly enters their parking lots. They are indeed "projects," cheap places where only those with an affinity for bedbugs and flirtations with seediness would ever wish to stay. They are often close to capacity for the simple reason that most units are SROs (single-room occupancies) for the down and out. Think the Midlands council housing featured in English director Mike Leigh's films swaddled in garish stucco.

Director Sean Baker invites us to imagine what it's like to live there, and his eyes into this world are largely those of children. Most of the film is set in complexes known respectively as the Future Land Inn and the Magic Castle Hotel, especially the latter. It's hard to escape the irony of names that echo nearby Disney World, but are eons removed on the socio-economic scale. Here children with little adult supervision live semi-feral existences—running amok through parking lots, abandoned housing tracts, dollar stores, cremee stands, greasy spoons, marshy fields, and tacky tourist shops. As the kids roam amidst the flat Florida landscape and kitschy capitalist trappings, Baker wordlessly drives home the point that a slum is a slum, no matter how bright its faux fronts.

Our main guide through Dante's Inferno is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her personal wolfpack: Dicky (Aiden Malik), Scotty (Christopher Rivera), and eventually her BFF Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Moonee is smart, incorrigible, and self-reliant, the latter two qualities a necessity for a child of a drug dealing, scam running, trick-turning, twenty-four-year-old single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley loves her daughter, but everything about her is a mess—including the scores of ugly tattoos chaotically inscribed upon her skin and a potty mouth that would make a sailor blush. She can't sustain her friendship with Ashley (Mela Murder), she can't stay straight, and she surely hasn't a clue of how to raise a kid; she has even less self-control than her six-year-old, who doesn't have much. We meet Moonee as she and her friends spit from a third-floor railing onto a car owned by Jancey's mother. That's certainly not a conventional path to friendship, but it works in a place where even children hustle by begging the cost of a single ice cream cone licked by all. Other activities include lining up for charity food handouts and breaking into abandoned houses.

Adult role models are scarce at the Magic Castle, a place whose weirdoes and damaged individuals seem like escapees from a Jim Jarmusch film. The closest thing to a functional adult is probably Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who manages the place and (sort of) looks out for the kids, whom he pretends to dislike. He actually has a soft interior—when he can access it. Bobby tries to keep his job by enforcing the rules, but is often too emotionally exhausted to give a damn one way or the other. Like other Magic Castle residents, he turns on a screw-it-all dime from kindness to rage. Consider, though, that Bobby is practically a long-range planner by local standards. Halley's idea of the future is to come up with—by hook or crook—the $35 she needs for her daily rent.  

The Florida Project features dazzling cinematography from Alexis Zabe, who makes ugliness look lush and vibrant. Young Brooklynn [sic] Prince dazzles as Moonee and is certainly a precocious talent to watch.  Vinaite's performance is so strong you'll have to remind yourself that she's not really a lowlife reprobate. Dafoe, however, is so good that it would be criminal were he not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Few do world-weary as well as he, but in this film he slathers his usual snark and sinister demeanor beneath layers of pathos. His is a nuanced and powerful performance.

The children of The Florida Project magnify its essential tragedy. Silver lining? Don't look for one; the film's climax is both chilling and indicting in ways that quietly make it a subversive film. The film will piss you off, but it should also make you fall to your knees in thanks that you had no problem coming up with the price of a theater ticket. It will also make you sad and force you to question star-spangled clichés of America the Bountiful. In this film, American exceptionalism lies ruined in a pit of purple stucco.

 Rob Weir