Moonee is where we should probably start. Moonee is a joy. She runs around playing with her friends with a never-ending smile and a sassy attitude that is endearing to a fault. She’s six-years-old and lives with her mother in the ironically christened Magic Castle, a low-end motel in the heart of Orlando, Florida’s dilapidated tourist strip. Her youthful exuberance, obliviousness to a near-homeless existence, and unwavering plight inform a quintessential American story about the country’s most easily forgotten denizens, types that have become the hallmark of filmmaker Sean Baker.
After capturing the unseen stories on the streets of Hollywood in the remarkable Tangerine, Baker has turned his sights to the blight of the impoverished in The Florida Project, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight portion of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. As with his previous work, Baker is able to coax some jaw-droppingly charismatic performances from some non-professional or nearly first-time actors. One of those in particular is Brooklynn Prince who plays Moonee. The other is Bria Vinaite, an Instagram discovery, who plays Moonee’s 22-year-old struggling mom, Halley.
Unable to find a job, Halley is hinging her hopes that another single mom in the budget motel will hire her as a waitress at a local diner. To make ends meet she buys knock off perfume wholesale and walks through the parking lots of nicer hotels trying to convince tourists they’re getting a deal with the knock-off than with the real thing. She has Moonee on her arm for the sympathy vote, but Halley never allows her desperation to show (and certainly not in front of her daughter). When the restaurant gig falls through Halley is forced to take drastic measures to try and cover their weekly room bill. She tries to shield it from Moonee’s young eyes, but she’s playing with fire and soon all the other permanent Castle guests discover what she’s up to. The clock is ticking financially and from a social services perspective and Halley is ignoring it at all costs.
The unexpected angel in Moonee and Halley’s lives is Bobby, the motel’s manager, brought to life in an exceptional turn by Willem Dafoe. Bobby is no doubt struggling himself, but he has a clear, undiluted sympathy for the most woeful guests at the Castle. He’s an inherently good person, even if he has a difficult time communicating with his grown son, Jack, played by Caleb Landry Jones. In fact, the lack of time devoted to their relationship is one of the film’s remarkably few issues. Bobby bares no tangible responsibility for his tenants, but he watches out for the kids and chases off a suspicious man who gets a bit too, er, chummy with them. He lets Moonee and her friends play hide and seek in his office and only seems mildly perturbed when their exploits end up temporarily turning the power off in the complex. Whether it’s Baker’s intention or not, Bobby is an everyman whose existence conveys a decency that still exists in this painfully partisan era. If you’re looking for hope in this tale, it begins and ends with Bobby.
Baker’s talents are truly rare. His ability to capture the joy in Moonee and her friends is a textbook example of cinematic naturalism. Baker and his exemplary cinematographer, Alexis Zabie, capture the inherent charm of the kids’ daily trips to the ice cream stand or their recklessness in how they turn an abandoned condominium into their own playground. In an era with remarkable child actors in film such as Room and Moonlight, Baker’s ability to siphon such authentic performances is truly a marvel.
There is a moment where Moonee takes center stage. It’s no fair letting the cat out of the bag but it’s enough to say that this moment won’t just break your heart, it will shatter your spirit. And after you pick up the pieces you’ll pause and wonder if the stories of Moonee, Halley and the residents of The Magic Castle will ever become remnants of history and not another generation’s ceaseless tragedy.
The Florida Project was acquired by A24 at the Cannes Film Festival and should arrive in theaters later this year.