Children tend to notice different things about the world than adults, so it’s not uncommon for a film to take on a child’s perspective to try and circumvent our usual way of thinking about a situation. One way to do this is to take advantage of childhood aptitude for subjective fantasy (eg: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Pan’s Labyrinth), but what’s arguably harder is what writer/director Sean Baker and screenwriting partner Chris Bergotch–the same team behind 2015’s Tangerine–manage to do in The Florida Project: they use their perspective to present a documentary-like realism both humanly sympathetic and brutally unforgiving.
The anchor of this perspective is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who spends her summer days like most kids, playing with her friends and making mischief. Much of the film unfolds following Moonee’s episodic adventures in and around The Magic Castle, a run-down motel on the fringes of Orlando where she is living with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) as summer begins. Halley is still something of a kid herself, channeling insecurity about adult responsibilities into misplaced aggression that keeps her trapped in a cycle of unemployment and poverty. Mother and daughter bond over takeout and impulsive shopping trips in moments that are both sweet and frustrating because we, as an audience, know they come at an expense that Moonee is not yet fully conscious of.
Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle, is. His downtrodden paternalism has no more purchase in his own family, so he turns it on the motel and its tenants, prodding Halley as best he can and keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) while patiently indulging their innocence. What at first seems like a plotless slice-of-life begins to turn on a moment where the kids’ actions have real-world consequences for them and their parents that could portend the kind of people they might become. A domino effect quietly begins that slowly ups the pressure of Halley and Moonee’s situation and pushes the story toward a tragic but somewhat inevitable conclusion.
The look of the film emphasizes the contrast in perspectives–between Mooney and Halley, between Halley and Bobby. It’s awash in bright pastels and full of the sort of whimsical buildings one finds in amusement parks and the towns built around them. Even swampy, overgrown backstreets and unkempt motel rooms are full of color and light. The beauty of the images sharpens the ugliness in the story, much in the way Halley is sharpened by the vacation culture of Orlando. She’s surrounded and exploited by people better off than she is; Mooney still believes in the magic of the world but Halley has seen too much magic packaged and sold to not want to take her own advantages where she can find them. The overall tone belongs to Bobby, though, who understands the falseness of the city’s cheerful veneer but takes a quiet pride in his world, painting the motel’s exterior or fixing a broken washing machine. Like him, the camera looks for beauty in unexpected places–like the group of herons that wander into the parking lot–and, like him, it can ultimately only observe Halley and Moonee’s trajectory.
Both actresses are completely captivating newcomers. It’s reasonable to be wary going into a movie that’s going to rest so largely on a child’s shoulders, especially so young a child, but Prince is precocious without ever being cloying or obviously putting on–one hopes that the child-star machine doesn’t eat her up going forward. Vinaite–a clothing designer and Instagram personality–has never been in a film before, but brings Halley the unexpected interior complexity of a woman who knows when she’s going too far but can’t make herself stop. Dafoe, for his part, delivers an understated performance that stays out of the film’s way, and much of the supporting cast is composed of nonprofessional/first-time actors in their real-world settings (The Magic Castle is an actual hotel).
This approach borrows from classic Italian neo-realism, which is a good touchstone when thinking about this movie. Like, say, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, this is a story about a parent-child bond amidst oppressive circumstances, given a 21st century update both in content and style (think the influential neon stillness of Refn, but warmer and less constructed). And like neo-realism, its aim is less at the microcosm of its characters than at the influences of the larger world that created it, suggested by signs in the background of the neighborhood streets, by the behavior of the tourists the characters are forced to accommodate. After the abrupt cutoff of the final crescendo, these are the images that linger most, that most unsettle and resonate as one walks out of the theater and into a world built on versions of those same signs, those same consumers.
After the breakout reception at Cannes, it seems likely this film will show up on this year’s Oscar ballots. It’s the kind of movie that I would usually say is too idiosyncratic to take the stage, but it’s also one of the strongest contenders I’ve seen yet this year–a patient, subtle, moving film. See it.