Whether it villainizes or sanctifies them, Hollywood seldom offers us convincing portraits of the contemporary poor. Panhandlers and welfare moms apparently don't fit the aesthetics of the dream factory. But, as we discover in writer-director Sean Baker's new movie, they fit just fine into the physical margins of another dream factory: Orlando, Fla.'s Walt Disney World.
A scripted drama with the unflinching, unjudging eye of a documentary, The Florida Project revolves around Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a 6-year-old torpedo of energy who lives in a very mauve motel called the Magic Castle. While her young mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), watches TV or cooks up moneymaking schemes, Moonee enjoys a degree of freedom (and danger) unknown to most middle-class kids today.
Some directors might have turned this into a cautionary tale. Instead, Baker adopts Moonee's perspective for long stretches of the film, recapturing the joy of being a kid out of school and on the loose. Moonee and her friends may not have access to the mammoth Disney complex that looms nearby, but their imaginations transform their neighborhood of tourists and transients into something as exciting as any theme park. Abandoned, mold-spotted condos are a playground; a deformed tree is a marvel; Twistee Treat is a chance to "get free ice cream."
Alexis Zabe's cinematography gives a dreamlike texture to the pastel buildings and lush foliage, drawing us into this twisted paradise where roadside signs entice tourists with promises of Disney knockoff toys and the opportunity to "shoot real machine guns."
But Baker doesn't censor the darker aspects of the place, or of his characters. Halley is a loving mom to Moonee in many ways, but she's also a loudmouth con artist with a teenager's knee-jerk disdain for authority. Like the trans sex-worker heroines of Baker's breakthrough Tangerine, she struts as if her very existence were a middle finger to society, parading an anger that's both beautiful and scary.
Scary because we care about Moonee, who doesn't realize how perilous the pair's way of life is. While Moonee's friends have more stable parental figures, Halley's inability to get a straight job puts her on an inexorable collision course with the authorities.
The only one who seems to foresee that collision is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle's manager, who's also often the only one watching the kids. A working stiff with little real power, he's the closest the movie has to a hero. Dafoe does wonders with a tense scene in which Bobby steers a likely creep away from the obliviously playing children. He gives the character no theatrics or machismo, just a low-key determination to keep the Magic Castle as safe as it can be.
For a film with such a neutral viewpoint, The Florida Project is an intense experience; viewers may come out drained, ready to argue or still worrying about the characters. But it's neither a condescending treatment of underrepresented people nor — surprisingly — a depressing one. By the end, we feel like we've experienced a real place with real, vital people, not a case study in American decline.
European filmmakers have been depicting poverty head-on for a while; with last year's American Honey, English director Andrea Arnold tried out a similar approach in the U.S. Like her, Baker gives his movie a youthful exuberance that makes it anything but an earnest slog. And much of that exuberance comes from Prince: Moonee is bratty, she's bossy, she's a show-off, she's almost never "cute," and it's impossible not to care about her.