Balancing optimism and desperation, Sean Baker's "The Florida Project" has brought an unusually told element of reality and compassion into American Cinema. Set in an Orlando motel neighborhood hit particularly hard in the 2008 recession, The Florida Project plays on the irony of immense poverty so near the extremely wealthy and "happiest place on earth" (Walt Disney World). Also, it emphasizes the veneer humans so often tend to place on the brutal side of reality by calling drug and prostitute-stricken motels fanciful names such as "The Magic Castle." Set almost entirely from six-year-old Moonee's perspective and inspired by the Little Rascals, the film sets the audience's childhood memories on fire. With vibrant pastels illuminating the scenes and Foley sounds louder than what seems normal, the heightened senses of a child are brought to the forefront. Precariousness drives the film as the main character, Moonee, played by first-time feature film actor Brooklyn Prince, lives blind to danger in her dream world where nothing negative exists and all is her playground, even the sketchy motel village where she lives.
Baker forces the audience to follow the intimate moments between the children throughout the film not only in scenes that advance the plot, but in exposition scenes of the children simply jumping on the bed, dancing, talking, and performing normal, everyday activities that make the movie true experiences of life rather than a structured plot of order and normal composition. The movie captures a beautiful string of precarious events, such as when, in the film, a group of six-year-olds are shown walking alone along the highway to an ice cream stand where Moonee convinces her friends to scam tourists to buy them ice cream. Moonee lives oblivious to any of her wrongdoings and undergoes no punishments even when she ends up single-handedly burning down entire condo buildings. Consequent to her delinquent and dangerous actions, the audience finds themselves attaching to the characters as they paternally worry. A natural response would normally be to dislike the parents who allow for the six-year-old to live in such a wild and even delinquent manner. Where is her guidance? Where is her protector? At the same time, however, Moonee's mother, Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor found by Baker via Instagram, is a wild, unattached, pothead of a character who gains sympathy from the audience despite her downfalls due to her impoverished, independent, and immature state. The conditions she faces, being so unique and despairing to the audience, create a loophole that blurs their ability to judge her as well as many of the other characters. Additionally, although Halley continuously smokes weed and yells offensive terms in front of Moonee, it is obvious that she lives her life trying to provide for Moonee and to give Moonee the best life she is capable to give with what she has, mentally and physically.
In this way, the movie does a beautiful job of suspending judgment and extending sympathy without being unethical. The movie does a fantastic job of making the audience question what is ethical and how they should feel towards this unique mix of characters. Bobby, the manager of the motel played by formally-trained and well-known Willem Dafoe, acts as one of the only mature and father-like characters in the film. From protecting the children from molesters on the playground to caring for families on the brink of eviction, Bobby stands as a beacon of morality amongst the corruption.
At the end of the film, when the main character, Moonee, becomes aware that she will be taken by child services, reality pops her bubble of illusion and precariousness for the first time and she is brought to tears. Running away from reality with her friend who lives in the motel next door, the movie takes a lyrical and setting leap that emphasize the contrasting and symbolic nature of the film by bringing a crying Moonee to a fanciful and seemingly-sublime Disney World. Telling an untold and joyfully troubled story of experience, the movie is a masterpiece of suffering and joy, of desperation and imagination, and of empathy and judgment that will transcend time.