The title of The Florida Project, the astounding new film from director Sean Baker, contains multiple meanings. Its screening this week at the Philadelphia Film Festival is a centerpiece screening with the director in attendance, and it opens locally at the end of the month.
While the setting, an Orlando-area motel complex, functions as an unofficial housing project, “The Florida Project” was the Disney Corporation’s internal code name during the planning of Walt Disney World in the 1960s. And just as Walt Disney himself died before Disney World’s construction was completed, in the film, the theme park functions as a metaphor for the successful, secure world just out of these characters’ reach.
Another winner from A24, the mini-studio that gave us the 2016 Philadelphia Film Festival centerpiece turned Best Picture Moonlight, The Florida Project is an astounding achievement that looks like nothing else on screens this year. It’s another triumph from Baker, who made the acclaimed, shot-entirely-on-an-iPhone indie film Tangerine two years ago.
A sunshine state of mind
The Florida Project follows the adventures of a group of young kids and their parents living at a motel complex called the Magic Castle on the grimy outskirts of Walt Disney World. The motel and the surrounding area have grandiose-sounding names and décor that stand in sharp contrast to their relative squalor. In one darkly comic scene, a couple is horrified to realize they've accidentally booked their honeymoon at the Magic Castle rather than the Magic Kingdom.
Its great sense of place is part of the film’s genius. It really captures the larger-than-life kitsch that’s absolutely endemic to that part of Florida. Even party stores and off-brand markets try halfheartedly to match the opulence and grandeur of Disney World itself.
The film centers around Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), a precocious six-year-old who lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a young woman with as many schemes up her sleeves as tattoos. Moonee spends her days wandering around the complex unsupervised with her two friends, occasionally tagging along on her mother’s scams. (One critic describes this film as a manifesto against helicopter parenting, but I wouldn’t go that far.)
Willem Dafoe, as the building's superintendent, oversees the motel’s activities, alternating between cop and mentor. It may be the finest performance of the actor’s long career.
The Florida Project is something of a slice-of-life tale. There’s no huge, overarching triumph or tragedy. But it does tell the sort of story about the desperate U.S. underclass that’s rarely told onscreen with this kind of honesty. It doesn’t canonize its characters, but it does grant them humanity. The film’s ending has divided audiences, but I found it delightful and perfectly in tune with what the film itself is about.
I wouldn’t call The Florida Project this year’s Moonlight, as that film was so unique it defies easy comparison. But it may very well find itself remembered as one of the year’s best indie films.