Writer-director Sean Baker weaves an extraordinary tale of childhood adventures amidst the poverty just outside of Disneyworld, Florida. It’s a story about irresponsibility, from the natural misadventures of children to the choices made by adults, but by staying with the kids almost exclusively, all the darkness and misery occurs on the periphery with the plot coming across only inferentially. I found it captivating, unique, charming, sad, funny and very, very good.
The focus of the film is almost entirely on Moonee, played charmingly by Brooklyn Kimberly Prince, as she runs wild with her friends from other families in semi-transient residence at the Magic Castle motel; these are the kinds of people who don’t own homes but aren’t quite homeless as long as they have the motel’s roof over their heads. The place is managed by Bobby, played with enormous grace by Willem Dafoe who ties the various stories together as some sort of father figure to all of these children, both young and adult. He’s absolutely wonderful in the role.
The setting is the freeway strip motels outside of the Magic Kingdom where these kids, too poor to ever visit the theme park, still get to see the fireworks from outside the walls every night. The architecture of the buildings around them is almost surreal in its shapes and colours, such as the Big Orange which appears to be some kind of juice bar that looks like, you guessed it, a big orange. This weirdness adds to the sense of childhood wonderland adventure yet carries a bitter taste of irony with the feeling of everything being fake, verging on dilapidation if not outright rotting, such as the pastel-coloured abandoned housing the kids play in at one point.
Some of the subject matter is quite dark, but by framing everything in the context of a child’s point of view, a lot of it has the double feeling of going over the kids’ heads while we, as adult viewers, understand only too well what is happening just outside of frame. It never falls into cliché, however; in one scene Bobby chases an old man he suspects of being a child molestor off the property, but there are no kidnappings or being hit by cars as the kids play by the freeway which you might expect to happen. I also found the ending a little perplexing, but, without spoiling it, I think it’s supposed to be underlining the idea of escaping from responsibility which is what everyone except pragmatic Bobby seems to be doing here.
I found The Florida Project to be a masterful blend of childhood wonder and excitement surrounded on all sides by the consequences of a flight from responsibility by the adults, who seem to be living extended childhoods themselves. Brooklyn Kimberly Prince is charming and really carries the film, but Willem Dafoe is marvelously understated as the quietly heroic guy trying to make the best of a bad situation. I really liked this movie a lot and it stayed with me long after it was over, which is always a good sign.