Sean Baker’s brilliant film The Florida Project, released in 2018, focuses on the flip- side of Walt Disney – the “hidden homeless” subsisting on the other side of Disneyworld in Florida- families living in slum motels. The law states that these families, who are struggling to survive, aren’t allowed to take up residency, so can only stay in rooms for a month at a time, before being sent to another room, or facing eviction. They’ve fallen through the cracks in society, living vulnerable, piecemeal existences, and the children often aren’t receiving a school education.
Halley (Bria Vinaite) is one such single mother. Together with her young daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) she hustles, doing what she can to raise cash- selling perfume; begging for free food and basically conning people. Sometimes, when Moonee plays with dolls in the bath, she’s whoring herself in the next room, or selling drugs.
The naturalistic performances are incredible. Vinaite is not a trained actor, she was discovered by Baker on Instagram, but she’s fantastic as the troubled, slightly crazy, obnoxious yet loving Halley. The professional actors here are Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones, the latter in a great cameo.
Dafoe, cast against type, is arguably the most sympathetic character here. His role of Bobby is superb and it’s refreshing to see Dafoe exuding kindness and generosity. He’s the caretaker of the motel, but more than this, he serves as caring father figure to many of the kids, who are missing out on positive male role models. He’s a frustrated empath: he feels for the residents while knowing that he can’t fully interfere, maintaining a professional distance, yet seeing how desperation leads to some dubious choices.
The tropes of Disney – colour-saturated landscapes; brightly painted buildings, and children playing – are skilfully pulled apart like daisy petals. The motel the main characters reside in is fairytale purple, and the buildings have names like The Magic Kingdom, but there are no lessons or magical solutions learned here.
Baker is an intelligent director, never apportioning blame or taking a didactic stance. He simply lets the story unfold using 35 mm, in neo- cinema vérité style, in all of its messy, joyful, heartbreaking glory.
It may be from a child’s perspective, but don’t expect a reassuring or twee denouement, either. The kids are running feral, and something’s got to give. Like the sugar binge Moonee and her mom go on in the local restaurant, the highs wear off very quickly.