“The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s 1960s-era code term for a planned East Coast amusement park, an euphemism justified by Disney’s fear that Orlando property owners would demand that Disney reimburse them at market rates. The secrecy worked, but what Disney couldn’t prevent was the hotel and motel industry’s successive Florida Project, a mini-gold rush that snapped up all the land within miles of the Magic Kingdom’s property.
Nor could the Mouse House do much about the consequent, gradual, decades-long decline in tourism that resulted in outer-perimeter motels becoming housing for long-term, shadier renters, a process that converted them into, well, Florida “projects.” Some have argued that the Spanish, and following them, the Americans, were crazy to settle in Florida in the first place; in that sense, Florida as a “project” has always been a bit reckless and misguided. You might say that each of these developments were powered by a certain naïve “when you wish upon a star” American-dream mentality that presumed you can ignore history and standards of decorum, follow your heart and guts, and things will probably work out and even be better for your kids…right?
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project doesn’t bother to recite this history in some sort of Argo-like animated-timeline opening. It doesn’t need to, because the weight of those naïve choices slumps the shoulders of all of the film’s working-class protagonists. Like their forebears, from Andrew Jackson to Walt Disney to Rick Scott, they take what they want when they want it. The series of misjudgments are written on their faces and quite literally on Halley’s body; Halley insistently displays her old, bad tattoos like a crumpled road map. Their lives are spitting into the wind, as the first scene shows very literally. One mother resists her child participating in this reckless, wanton behavior, but she soon surrenders her daughter to it.
Again and again in The Florida Project, everyone pushes to see what they can get away with, be it shoplifting or scamming fast food or hawking designer-label knock-offs. Remarkably, almost impossibly, Baker stringently avoids casting judgment on these portraits of exurban malaise; these people simply are, as in films like Kids (1995) and Baker’s previous Tangerine (2015). Throughout, it captures the best documentary quality of life simply happening without adornment, as though even the camera, mirroring society, isn’t all that interested in them.
The last major independent film to take such a granular look at Florida came out more than a decade ago, John Sayles’ Sunshine State (2004). Sayles was clearly trying to understand and portray the political divisions of a state that had placed George W. Bush into the White House with the margin of a mouse’s whisker. Baker is interested a different mouse; the Mouse House-adjacent housing development that he profiles almost seems to exist beyond politics.
Yet laissez-faire politics have indeed led to the situation and outlook of Halley, Moonee, and their friends and co-residents: take what you can, when you can. Prostitute yourself if you must. And tell yourself that your dreams are never more than a few miles away. The film strings together scenes with an ostensible scattershot randomness until the weight of all the unfortunate decisions finally catch up to Halley and Moonee, and the film ends with a last desperate attempt at aspiration, an ending that will go down in history as the modern equivalent of the ending of The 400 Blows (1959).
In the grand tradition of previous masterpieces from The Kid (1921) to Pather Panchali (1956) to City of God (2003), Baker wisely centralizes a young child in this world of indigence and rapacity, that we may feel the harsh distance between dreams and reality. The Florida Project is jam-packed with terrific, unpredictable actors, but none better, or more important, than Brooklynn Prince as the lead, seven-year-old Moonee. Prince’s work is beyond lifelike: as Moonee she speaks and acts so intuitively, so impulsively, that she literalizes the film’s ravishingly restless realism.
Maybe the entire film consists of first takes; certainly Prince’s work makes it feel that way. Through Prince’s revelatory work as Moonee, we understand and relate to the humanity behind these forgotten suburbs; we feel in our bones that when adults aren’t given options, kids like Moonee suffer. Moonee touches us partly because she never asks for any sympathy or sentiment; Prince isn’t asking for awards, either, but she sure deserves some.
Bria Vinaite is likewise outstanding as her delusional mom, Halley. Willem Dafoe as Bobby is the soul of practical humanism in a role that feels as though it were written to assure the film’s budget (it could have been played by anyone from age 30 to age 70), and his apparently unstoppable current awards run feels like appreciation for both his career and his enabling The Florida Project. That is great, and not great enough.
Hollywood needs to make 49 more such films that shine a light on the indigent working-class of 49 other states. The best way to encourage such future filmmaking is for awards bodies to recognize The Florida Project in categories like Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. And…how to put this delicately? This year, the Oscars need The Florida Project to shore up their red-state bona fides.
Right now, the other films with a clearer lane to Best Picture nominations include Dunkirk, The Post, The Shape of Water, The Big Sick, Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, The Disaster Artist, and Get Out…all fine films, but not exactly films about the modern white working-class that sought salvation in the form of Donald J. Trump. Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, also on the inside lane, come closer, but the former is more about normcore California in 2003, the latter more a Coen Brothers-like, indie-star-driven portrait of the South.
Two years ago this month, we awoke on nomination morning to learn that AMPAS had bestowed surprise nominations for Screenplay, Director, and Picture to a little film called Room. Let us all project our wish that AMPAS do something similar for The Florida Project.