In the shadow of the fairytale palaces of Walt Disney World, Florida, stands another Magic Kingdom — a low-rent motel of the same name. Tourists are rarely spotted here, except disgruntled honeymooners horrified that their suspiciously cheap pre-booked package holidays have let them down. Three storeys high and painted in a pastel purple — similar nearby blocks are cheerfully garish pink and orange — this Magic Kingdom is a fantasy world of a different sort, where grim discomfort lurks behind the trompe l’oeil windows and candy floss exterior. It’s home to those director Sean Baker has called America’s ‘hidden homeless’: families living hand-to-mouth and resorting to desperate means to pay the weekly rent on their dingy single rooms.
Six-year-old Moonee (the remarkably watchable Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives in the motel with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who pulls together cash for the rent by selling wholesale perfume on the estate, hawking stolen theme-park tickets and, eventually, through prostitution. Impish Moonee spends her days roaming the surrounds with her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and new pal Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who the kids take under their wing after she's caught in the crossfire of one of their spitting competitions. The children run wild, screaming and swearing: they shut off the motel’s power supply, accost passers-by for ice cream money and haul strangers’ bags around for tips, dance on picnic tables, bang on doors of the motel (‘the man who lives in here gets arrested a lot,’ Moonee matter-of-factly informs Jancey), and experiment with arson in derelict houses. On the occasions when Moonee is caught and marched back to her mother, Halley can barely disguise her amusement at her daughter’s crimes. ‘I’ve failed as a mother, Moonee!’ she calls to her daughter, who feigns absorption in her iPad as a stern neighbour shakes her head at the door. ‘Yeah, Mom, you’re a disgrace!’ the child shoots back. It’s hard not to join in their gleeful laughter.
Halley herself — played convincingly by first-time actress Vinaite, whom Baker spotted via her Instagram fashion business — is almost childlike. Tattooed, chainsmoking, lax on discipline and boundaries, she fits every stereotype of the delinquent single mother, but the joy she derives from her daughter is palpable and tender. She seems happiest when she shakes off the cares of adulthood and gets on her daughter’s level, dancing in the rain, devouring pizza, initiating burping contests. The camera is rarely off Prince, whose performance is astounding in its natural poise. Baker allows us to see life through Moonee’s eyes — but we also, increasingly, understand what she doesn’t, and the poignancy of that disjunct is almost unbearable. Surrogate to the viewer is father-figure Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel’s manager, who serves as an unofficial guardian — physical and moral — to the residents in his care: we share his infuriation at Moonee and Halley’s irresponsibilities (while they stick their tongues out at him in response), but feel a rush of relief at the gruff affection that shines through every time he steps in to protect them against the dangers Halley appears to ignore.
Baker is known for his sensitive depictions of misfits and his direct filming style: his previous feature, Tangerine, was shot entirely on iPhone and explored the world of a transgender prostitute living in LA. The Florida Project is shot over one long, halcyon summer, where day and night blend and time seems to stand still. ‘What do you do all day, Moonee?’ asks a uniformed social worker, urgently, towards the end of the film: it’s as if reality has caught up with her, and the almost-dreamlike vision of freedom and adventure, of children self-sufficient in a glorious landscape, is shattered. Beneath the beautiful veneer, all childlike innocence and lingering sunsets on the coloured concrete, the film confronts us directly with profound ethical questions: it is harrowing, empathetic and immensely powerful.
Words by Francesca Wade