The Florida Project (2017) shows us a glimpse of what happiness means for those who ‘happy ever after’ left behind.
The magic kingdom casts a long shadow and there are those who live in the shade, cruelly out of reach of the fairy tale endings tantalisingly promised therein. But, even in the darkest depths of that shade, happiness can be found, if even only for a short while.
Over the course of a Florida summer, precocious 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her playmates find mischief and adventure in and around The Magic Castle, the extended-stay motel she and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) call home. But as the weeks go by, Halley’s situation becomes ever more precarious and while Moonee spends her days innocently playing, the harsh realities of life begin to take their toll.
With “The Florida Project”, director Sean Baker shines a tender, empathetic, bittersweet light on the flip side of the candy-coloured Disneyfied American Dream. The colours are still bright and breezy but in place of dreams there’s quiet desperation and instead of happily ever after, there’s making it through the day, eking out what little of happiness and contentment you can find.
At the centre of this beautiful film are three performances, each of them provoking wonder, sympathy and some sobering questions about the current state of the world. Baker captures his cast in a naturalistic style and young Brooklynn Prince and her kid co-stars deliver incredible performances, perfectly capturing the dizzying, giddy, self-centred innocence of childhood, oblivious to the despair and desperation of the adults who care for her. Both she and Bria Vinaite walk a fine line between obnoxiousness and charm and although you may be somewhat put off them at the beginning, a summer in their shoes will certainly change your mind. Willem Dafoe completes the trinity as long-suffering Motel manager Bobby and Dafoe delivers a performance of astonishing humanity as he struggles to reconcile his duties and responsibilities with his sympathies.
Insightful without being invective, understanding without being condescending, Baker allows us to witness his characters struggle with the indignities and unfairness of a system which has little time or sympathy for those who have stumbled or fallen by the wayside and it’s a remarkable testament to the performances of the cast that this tale of a precocious little girl, her ferociously devoted but struggling mother and a man who does all he possibly can to stave off the inevitable should manage to warm your heart to bursting point while simultaneously breaking it into pieces.