Throughout the years, driving from New York to Florida and back again, I’ve passed exit signs advertising numerous motels and hotels located off of I95 (Interstate 95). As I sit and write this post, I can’t recall with certainty, the name of any of them, even the ones I’ve stayed the night at in North Carolina, going to, or coming back from, New York. If I had driven past an advertisement for a place called “The Magic Castle Inn,” and I was in the Orlando area where Disney World is located, that would’ve made me think about the name for more than a passing moment. After watching the poignant film “The Florida Project,” I wondered, in how many of the places that I did drive past advertisements for, are there people leading lives of quiet desperation. Are there individuals like Halley, portrayed by Bria Vinaite, and her six-year old, daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who are on the cusp of being evicted from the motel where they live, if they can’t come up with the rent money? Halley hustles by selling cologne and perfume outside of establishments she knows cater to the more affluent members of society. The surly and belligerent, tattooed, blue haired, single mother, has her good days and her bad, but regardless, it is a hard way to earn money.
The film begins with Moonee, and her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik), running to The Futureland Inn, a neighboring motel, to spit on a car from the second floor balcony. Their gross, albeit, juvenile hijinks, are soon put to an end when the owner of the car, Stacy (Josie Olivo), catches them in the act and demands to speak to their parents. Afterward, punishment is doled out in the form of the children cleaning the car, but in the process they make a new friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), the granddaughter of the woman whose car they spat on. Episodic incidents like that, which shift from one moment of life to another, take up large amounts of time during the film’s 111 minute duration, but somehow, by film’s end, it all works.
The director of the movie, Sean Baker (Tangerine), who co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Chris Bergoch (Starlet), is not attempting to glorify poverty; at no point did I feel that Baker was exploiting or judging his characters. What Baker does do, is present viewers with an honest depiction of how those who have little money go about trying to make life bearable, as well as entertaining, especially in the case of the children.
As viewers, we see, day to day life, primarily through Moonee’s point-of-view. There is no talk of how she does in school, it being the summertime, but she comes across as a precocious child, and she’s definitely inquisitive. For example, she turns off the main circuit breaker that controls the power for the entire motel, which causes an uproar among guests, and long-term residents. The problem is soon handled by Bobby, the laconic, motel manager. He is played by Willem Dafoe (Platoon), who in addition to two other Oscar nominations, has been nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in “The Florida Project.” Defoe’s character is a responsible motel employee – he gives the garish exterior of the motel a fresh coat of paint, attends to bed-bug infested mattresses, and deals with the monthly expense reports. Furthermore, when he needs to, he evicts people who can’t pay their bills, but at the same time, he shows empathy for those whose lives he comes in contact with. Bobby tries, when he can, to look out for the best interests of those who reside at the motel, and give breaks to people who are down on their luck. He even, in many ways, takes on the role of a surrogate parent, who is firm, but fair, and demonstrates a genuine caring for the children that occupy the motel. On occasion, his vigilance for their well-being, keeps them from harm; for example, when he thwarts the repulsive plans of a pedophile.
“The Florida Project” premiered on May 22, 2017 at the Cannes Film Festival. As he did with his previous film “Tangerine,” Baker populates the movie with an ensemble cast, that with the exception of Defoe, mainly consists of unknown actors. The cast is uniformly good, and give believable performances. One such cast member is the oddly named, Mela Murder, who plays Ashley, Scooty’s mother, and is good friends with Haley, until an incident involving the children lead them to having a falling out. As previously mentioned, the film is episodic, as opposed to a straightforward, dramatic narrative. This is the kind of film that needs to be seen in order to be fully appreciated.