The kids in The Florida Project need more lavender in their lives. Never mind that the budget motel where they live is painted that hue, standing against the strip malls and thoroughfares of the Orlando area like a pastel castle (indeed, the motel’s name is the Magic Castle). Lavender evokes brightness, hope, and cheer, but all of that is in short supply for these children.
The tragedy and delight of The Florida Project is that the kids don’t realize this yet. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the 6-year-old ringleader of the picture’s pipsqueak gang, blithely walks a new friend around the motel, tossing off quips about things that should be concerning. (“The man who lives in here gets arrested a lot.”) Moonee never feels safer than when she’s with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), but that’s because she doesn’t recognize the risks Halley takes trying to scrounge up rent money. (What’s really going on during Moonee’s bath time will break your heart.) As the camera tumbles behind Moonee and her friends during their aimless, unsupervised days, they come across as innocently carefree and achingly vulnerable.
They’re also little monsters. We first meet Moonee and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) spitting from a second-floor walkway onto the windshield of a car parked below. Another pastime is sneaking into the motel’s mechanical room and shutting off the power. Prince, as Moonee, has a sharp mouth (her defense mechanisms have been well-honed) and a maddening smile, the sort that admits guilt while also saying, “I’m a cute kid so you can’t do anything about it.”
Moonee and her friends are especially good at tormenting Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel’s earnest manager. Bobby is the one who makes sure that the lavender stays bright—even the driveway curb gets a fresh coat—and that the back alley is swept clean of debris. He also looks after the kids as much as he can, reminding them of the rules and steering a likely pedophile off the property. They return the favor by hiding in stairwells and yelling things like “Bobby boobies!”
I’m tempted to say Dafoe gives the performance of his career, employing a series of smiles and sighs to create a lived-in portrait of exasperated, inexhaustible goodness. But the truth is I might just be in love with the character. Bobby is, in a sense, our surrogate—he’s a bit closer to these kids, but still unable to always be there when they need him. At the end of the film, in the aftermath of a sorrowful series of events that Bobby can only watch from afar, he makes one final, futile gesture of assistance. Walking past a motel resident who is sitting on a broken washing machine, he stutters, “I’m going to fix these machines by the end of the week.” She simply shrugs. It’s just one more broken thing in her life, we suspect, but repairing it is all Bobby can offer.
These kids are innocently carefree and achingly vulnerable. They’re also little monsters.
Amidst the tenuousness that defines these various lives on the margins, The Florida Project pauses here and there to allow for moments of grace and human connection. In this way it resembles Tangerine, the previous film from director Sean Baker. While following a frantic night in the lives of two transgender prostitutes, Tangerine managed to infuse a grimy milieu with a pulsing, insistent beauty. Something similar happens in The Florida Project, as when Halley and Moonee celebrate the little girl’s birthday by watching faraway fireworks (likely Disney World’s). As they sit together in soft silhouette, Halley tells her, “It’s for you.” Later in the film, Bobby leans over a walkway at dusk and lights a cigarette; suddenly all of the exterior lights of the motel flicker to life in response, as if he were a wizard casting a spell on a place that no one would associate with magic.
The gorgeousness of these moments can be credited both to Baker and The Florida Project’s cinematographer, Alexis Zabe (who has also worked with Carlos Reygadas on Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux). If Tangerine was a rush of movement, famously shot on adapted iPhones, The Florida Project is a collection of clever compositions. I think of Moonee and friends peeking over a lavender-splashed wall made to resemble a turret, like knights of the kids’ table, or a montage in which they trot past various, garish tourist traps: a gift shop with a giant wizard on the roof; Twistee Treat, in the shape of an ice cream cone; and Orange World, a bright, domed produce store that squats on a parking lot like an invading UFO.
There are other invaders in The Florida Project: those who visit from affluent America. A comic sequence involves a pair of honeymooners who thought they had booked a room at the actual Disney World and are appalled to discover that the likes of Halley will instead be their neighbor. Across the parking lot from the Magic Castle is a helicopter landing pad, where tourists dip in and out, barely touching the lives of the motel’s residents. How do Moonee and Halley greet these hovering aliens? By giving them the middle finger.
The Florida Project has a bravura finale that reverses this dynamic, suddenly sending the have-nots into the heart of the haves. I won’t give it away, except to note that Baker drastically shifts his camera technique for an exhilarating burst of cinema verite, one that also functions—at least for the comfortable, middle-class viewer—as a punch in the gut. The Florida Project is a triumphant exercise in cinematic empathy that also serves as a subversive societal challenge. I left the movie aching for Moonee, and wondering who else I’ve obliviously driven by on my way to the Magic Kingdom.