Poverty wears purple two doors down from Disneyworld

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Florida Project
RPL Film Theatre

January 4–7

Two years ago, armed only with an iPhone and a number of nonprofessional actors, writer/director Sean Baker put together a sympathetic portrait of the denizens of Los Angeles. The film was Tangerine, and it went on to win just about every indie award in sight.

Baker is back doing the same thing with motel dwellers in Orlando, and somehow the result’s even better. One would be hard-pressed to find a more humanist film in last year than The Florida Project.

The focus is again on people falling through an uncaring system’s cracks.

As grim as it sounds, The Florida Project is a hoot. The film revolves around Moonee (newcomer Brooklyn Prince), a vivacious six-year old who lives in a ghastly purple motel called the Magic Castle. Moonee and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) are long-term residents at the inn. They barely make ends meet and their situation gets more dire with every passing week.

The Florida Project doesn’t exploit their situation for a cheap cry. We see the world through Moonee’s eyes and all we see is wonder: she’s just a happy kid with a mischievous streak and the hardships of reality have just begun to creep into her worldview. Halley isn’t mother-of-the-year material but there’s love there. The lengths she goes to make a living for them are both ill-conceived and a bit tragic.

There’s one marquee name supporting the film: William Dafoe as Bobby, the super. Dafoe taps into his nicer self to portray the cranky yet protective manager. Baker has a knack for three-dimensional characters and, with barely a glimpse of Bobby’s personal life, we get a complete picture.

Of the film’s many achievements, its ability to capture free-range children at their most unguarded stands out. More than a story, The Florida Project is a slice of life: from early on, the characters’ arc is clear and it doesn’t deviate from its natural course. As much as we would like it to.