Being a tourist often requires a set of blinders.
To enjoy yourself and forget life back home, you have to ignore anything that isn’t picture-perfect, especially in a city like Orlando. Walt Disney World is cocooned within a city where 18% of its residents live below the poverty line (4% more than the national average).
To see and acknowledge that would ruin your vacation, wouldn’t it?
So parents pay for all-inclusive passes, making sure their children don’t have to experience anything but castles and spaceships during this year’s spring break in Florida. Vacation snapshots only capture what’s beautiful and manicured, leaving everything ugly and real just out of frame.
When they look back on their trip, no one wants to remember that terribly young mother hawking designer perfume in the parking lot of their hotel with her unruly 6-year-old girl in tow. It only seems right, then, that Sean Baker dedicates his follow-up to 2015’s Tangerine entirely to that 6-year-old and her wonderful, whimsical and painfully real life just outside Disney World’s gates.
It seems fair that for once we pay attention.
Narratively, there’s not much to The Florida Project; its pace is leisurely, and it saves its most powerful moment for the very end. Rather than telling us about his protagonists, Baker — taking on directing, co-writing, co-producing, and editing duties — prefers to let us live with Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her struggling but loving mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) during the early days of summer in their community of extended-stay motel guests. They’re poor, practically living day-to-day, but they’re neither angry about it nor happy in spite of it: they just are. Baker very wisely lets us observe Moonee’s life without ever allowing us to judge it. All he really wants is for us to see her, in all her precocious glory.
And we do. Prince is a delight, sassing paternal hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and sharing a single ice cream cone with her friends (“It’s free!” she declares, right before she asks a stranger for the money to buy it so she and her friends can soothe their nonexistent asthma) with equal parts mischief and love. Her innocence is so pure and bright that even a series of boredom-induced accidents, from shutting off the motel’s power to setting an abandoned condo on fire, can’t dim it. And it’s clear from the start that Halley, a single mom barely out of her teens with no job and no prospects, treasures and protects that innocence as fiercely as she can.
Because of this, it’s hard to condemn Halley as a bad mom when in any other movie it would be easy to do exactly that. Halley is so young; she’s impulsive and irresponsible; she loses her temper with every adult she encounters; and, yes, she resorts to criminal activity to pay for that week’s rent, but only because she has no other choice. Despite everything, she never lashes out at Moonee, or blames her for their poverty, or does anything to hurt her at all. She’s a good mom in an inescapable situation, living a cycle that repeats week to week with no expectation of change. Because of the reality of their lives, Halley knows when to fight for Moonee, and she knows when to let go. It’s a remarkable thing for a mom to be so young and so flawed, and yet so wise.
Between Baker’s script (co-written by Chris Bergoch) and Vinaite’s performance, Halley is one of the most nuanced portrayals of motherhood in recent memory. It’s not often film gives us a mother who is imperfect but still good, criminal and nurturing all at once. She’s paired well with Dafoe’s Bobby, the father of an adult son (Caleb Landry Jones) who is drifting away from him and the de facto protector of everyone living in his motel. The scene where he coolly herds a pedophile away from the children playing in the parking lot is some of Dafoe’s best work as an actor, and probably the best part of the movie that isn’t directly focused on Moonee. When he tells the pedophile he’ll kill him if he sees him around the motel again, you absolutely believe him — and not because Dafoe has played characters that would do that and much worse in the past. Rather, you believe him because Bobby truly loves the kids who live in his motel, despite how much trouble they cause him, and he would do anything, anything, to keep their lives as carefree as possible. Just like Halley.
Because both of them know it won’t last.
Moonee and her friends are on a very different kind of vacation than the tourist whose Disney wristbands Halley steals and sells for rent money. Their summer vacation is only from school; they cannot afford a vacation from life. Moonee is too young to know that, but we do. We know that what Halley is doing to pay the bills will have consequences that we desperately wish will never come. Really, this film is an achievement in empathy as well as filmmaking; by the end, we want to protect Moonee’s breezy childhood as much as Halley and Bobby do. We want her to keep running hand-in-hand with her best friend through the motel’s halls forever. If only she could.
The Florida Project starts sunny and ends stormy because that’s how it feels to grow up. I wish Moonee could have taken a page out of Peter Pan’s book, but summer always ends, the clouds eventually break and we all have to grow up, often in an instant.
The Heartland Film Festival was lucky to count this film among its special presentations last weekend; it opens nationally tomorrow. Don’t miss the chance to let it break your heart.