Sean Baker’s The Florida Project begins with an image of two children sitting against the pastel-purple wall of “The Magic Castle” motel in Orlando, Florida as Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” plays over its title credits. From this first sequence, Baker’s film establishes the tone of The Florida Project to be a playful and positive one on the surface. As it progresses, it reveals a focus on more complicated human concerns through its diverse ensemble cast including Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of the motel, Bria Vinaite as Halley, a single mother who’s struggling to maintain a consistent living situation, and Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, Halley’s daughter.
Many portions of the film are dedicated in placing us in the specific locations found right outside of Disney World, where tourists roam the strip before heading to the parks with their park hoppers. Baker frequently makes use of wide-shots to depict many of the large-than-life shops and stores that the children of the local motels adventure to on their typical afternoon excursions. In these images, Moonee and her friends appear as tiny little ants at the bottom of the screen as they approach ice cream stands and themed diners.
Baker makes the apparent juxtaposition between the images and locales that lie just beyond the boundaries of the magic kingdom and the hidden underbelly of struggling individuals who occupy the nearby motels. However, Baker never succumbs to glamorizing these locations as he weighs our attention to the individual characters and their daily activities, which are very much grounded in reality and not some “Mickey Mouse” fantasy, as much as Moonee might like to believe. To Moonee, Bobby is a ‘park’ guide to poke fun at, but in reality, his administrative responsibilities in keeping the motel inhabitants safe while simultaneously enforcing rules and policies takes a visible toll on his professional conscience.
While The Florida Project showcases some impressive visuals and a fun, free-flowing script, it wouldn’t truly seem as alive as it does without its central performances. The film periodically hints at the magic which lies just beyond strip in the unseen theme parks, yet there’s a very real magic to the central performances of the film that is always present. Moonee and her friends Jancey and Scooty give off the impression that they aren’t even “acting”. There’s almost a feeling of improvisation among them, as dialogue and humor flow organically. Baker has pointed out during interviews of his preference to simplify lines so that they sound natural coming from a child’s mouth, and he succeeds in doing so. Additionally, their physical performances are fun and charming in ways that might suggest a direction by Baker for the kids to just ‘play’. They dance, run, and cause general mischief throughout the motels they venture through. In one standout sequence, Baker places the camera in an extreme close-up to Moonee’s face as she stuffs her face with breakfast in the dining hall of a more expensive motel where she and her mother shouldn’t be. While the camera couldn’t be any closer, there’s a sense of performative freedom in the way Brooklynn chows down on her meal like a kid in her natural state.
On the other hand, we have Dafoe’s Bobby, an experienced adult who’s performance comes with the weight of an established Hollywood career. Throughout the film, Bobby faces the responsibilities as the Magic Castle’s manager, which entails keeping the electricity on, maintaining a sense of security and safety for the inhabitants, and generally keeping a professional attitude toward everyone. It’s a wonderfully balanced performance, as Bobby is often faced with situations where personal and professional responsibilities conflict with each other. To Bobby, making the correct choice is not always so clear as opposed to someone like Halley, who decides that the “correct” choices are simply ones which provide enough financial income to maintain a lifestyle comfortable enough to live and raise Moonee within.
As a result, The Florida Project puts the lives of its characters on display in what’s both a celebration of child-like fun and a complicated exposition of people living in a real environment, struggling to maintain a lifestyle of comfort and consistency on the outskirts just beyond the place where “dreams come true”. The wide spectrum of performances showcased by the central cast succeed in providing satisfyingly varied degrees of entertainment and drama, which helps in developing empathy toward them as humans and not just fictional characters. Halley resembles a girl who’s not yet ready to be a mother. Her performance stands somewhere between Bobby and Moonee as a person ill-equipped to solve her adult problems, frequently alternating between presentations of immaturity and moments of maternal responsibility. On the other hand, Brooklynn and her fellow child performers embody the fun and simplicity of children having the time of their lives until they’re confronted with the problems of their own reality that lie outside of their control. Everything eventually feels as if it falls on the shoulders of Bobby, as Willem Dafoe extraordinarily communicates the complicated feelings in understanding Halley and Moonee’s living situation while distancing himself as an experienced authority figure who’s a manager, not a parent. Overall, the mixed cast of The Florida Project successfully coalesces in presenting a colorfully human portrait of playful simplicities and worldly complexities that viewers can both relate to and learn from.