We meet the protagonist of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project in a hilarious scene: Six-year-old Moonie, along with her pal Scooty, welcomes a new neighbor by gleefully spitting all over her car. Kids, lest we forget, make their own fun, and even when busted, they find as much anarchic joy in the clean-up as they did in making the mess.
Moonie (a fantastic Brooklynn Prince) lives with her struggling-to-get-by mom, Haley (Bria Vinaite), in an Orlando motel. Moonie is bossy and bratty, full of brio and enviable self-possession; her grubby T-shirt reads “I decided to be awesome today.” It’s summer, and to the other motel kids, life is a largely unsupervised delight of running half-wild through the facility. (Moonie tells a new kid: “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in … but let’s go anyway.”)
The adjacent commercial strip is a freaky sun-drenched playground. Everything is garishly painted; buildings are shaped like oranges or ice-cream cones. Generic signs scream about “Disney,” while none of the Mouse-opoly’s brand images are in view. But the presence of the nearby theme parks hangs over everything — it’s the life force for these vampire-like discount businesses.
And way down the food chain from Disney World are folks like Moonie and her mom, hustling week to week in out-of-date motels with mocking names like Magic Castle and Futureland. Life at the motel is a challenge — one step above homelessness — but it’s also the proverbial village. There’s some neighborly looking out, and the kids fall under the collective care of assorted adults. Serving as everybody’s de facto parent is motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who carps and blusters, but can’t help caring.
Baker’s previous film, Tangerine (2015), depicted the friendship among transgender prostitutes working Los Angeles streets, and he brings a similar sensitive naturalism to Florida — using nonprofessional actors, and delivering a clear-eyed and nonjudgmental portrait of overlooked communities. (Florida reminded me of last year’s similarly loosely plotted life-on-the-fringe piece American Honey; these are complementary portraits of America’s rarely depicted underclass.) Baker also has a keen eye for the candy-colored visual contradictions of central Florida: a man-made ugliness that is forever at odds with natural beauty, where a gorgeous blue sky decorated with puffy white clouds hangs above ticky-tacky strip malls.
There’s not a lot of plot, but I hardly noticed, I was so entranced with young Moonie. Florida mostly unfolds from her perspective, where a big day might be hitting the dollar store or scamming tourists for change. But all that unsupervised fun the kids enjoy has its roots in the severely stressed circumstances of the adults; inevitably, Moonie is due a hard landing. This certainty gives the film its riveting mix of exhilaration and dread, right up to its pitch-perfect conclusion.