Joys and Pains of Poverty Explored in ‘The Florida Project’ (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=9.00]

There’s a lot to unpack in The Florida Project, writer/director Sean Baker’s intimate look at a life of poverty in the shadow of the happiest place on earth. On one hand, it’s a film about the magic of childhood, where even a quick jaunt down the street for ice cream can turn into an adventure as vast and epic as any that has ever been taken, and where a sleazy motel can house the wildest fantasies of youth. On the other, it’s a peek inside a world of abject poverty, where living large often means simply paying rent, and where paying rent can mean making painful decisions that you’d rather not think about or discuss.

Life, and its pains; joy, and its sadness; laughter, and its hardship. The Florida Project carefully entwines its narrative in a way that reveals the broad spectrum of life, of humanity, and of love. It’s a moving film that carefully guides you through a deceptively complex examination of the fringes of American life, without judgment or exploitation.

The Florida Project centers around the denizens of a rundown motel standing in the shadows of Disney World in Orlando, primarily the young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee does her best to enjoy the thrills of childhood with the other long-term residents of the motel, exploring the hidden corners of Orlando with wide eyes and wonder while making life a kind of adorable hell for Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel’s manager. Unbeknownst to Moonee are the struggles of her mother, whose attitude and behavior prevents her from being able to make a decent living or find a decent home.

Much of the film is presented as a plotless, slice of life character study. Told primarily from the perspective of Moonee, the film leaves its true narrative hidden in the subtext for much of its runtime, in much the same way that children are blissfully unaware of their parents’ struggles. Moonee is a happy child, enjoying her childhood and making do because, well, she doesn’t know anything different.

It’s hard not to impress our own perspectives on her situation; as audience members, we are all too aware of just what kind of hell she’s actually living in, and how dire her situation actually is. From where we’re sitting, we cannot help but think about the struggles she’s going to face as she grows older. Her blissful, magical childhood can’t last forever, and she’s not too far from realizing for herself what her reality actually is. Baker isn’t interested in our perspective, however. He’s not here for our need to judge.

Instead, we’re meant to see the world from Moonee’s eyes. We might cringe at seeing such a young girl cross the street by herself, but Moonee sees only freedom. Once we get past our own misgivings, we cannot help but laugh at her misadventures getting ice cream or procuring free waffles from her friend’s mom’s place of work. We might shudder to think of the stress caused to poor Bobby as Moonee and her friends run wild through the motel, but we soon see the adoration Bobby has for the wild children of his motel and the adoration they, in turn, have for him.

All the while, however, the specter of Halley looms quietly in the background. We’ve all known a Halley in our lives—the rebellious fun-lover who never quite learned how to function in the larger world. She’s loud, abrasive, and sassy, more concerned with where her next blunt will come from than with how to improve her situation. Like some many living in poverty, Halley has grown content with her situation, and her contentedness has bred an apathy. She ain’t homeless, and fuck you for suggesting otherwise.

Both Moonee and Halley are played by unknown actresses, lending a bitter, beautiful realism to the work overall, and both actresses knock it out of the park. At times I had to remind myself I was watching a movie, not a documentary. The two seemed to have that bond that only poverty can bring to a family, and at no point did I question the legitimacy of their relationship.

That, of course, made it all the more tragic as Halley’s life began to spiral farther and farther out of control. She’s the type of girl who lives so close to the edge that she can’t tell when she’s fallen off the sides, and as magical and fun as Moonee’s story is, Halley’s story takes more than a few dark turns. Baker’s script (co-written by frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch) balances both sides of its narrative ingenuously, never letting us forget that tragedy and hope can usually be found walking hand in hand.

Thematically, the film, at times, reminded me of the Akira Kurosawa classic, Dodes’ka-den, which featured a similar exploration of impoverished living in a bizarre, close-knit community. Like Kurosawa’s film, The Florida Project is an untraditional narrative that paints a larger picture of the unseen lives. Though not presented as interconnected vignettes like Dodes’ka-den, there is a kind of dreamy, disconnected to feel to Baker’s narrative that draws comparison.

So, too, with Baker’s compositions. The colors of The Florida Project are bright and bold, quite the opposite of what you’d expect from a narrative so laced with tragic undertones. This world is vivid and bright, exactly how Moonee sees it, reminding us that there’s always wonder to be found even in the bleakest of situations.

The Florida Project is a rare and special film that offers the kind of transcendent experience so rarely received from modern cinema. An instant classic in the truest sense of the term, it’s a beautiful, heartwarming, heartbreaking film that begs contemplation and consideration. Baker has proven himself to be a filmmaker of the highest quality, crafting a work that stays true to his indie roots while pushing his personal boundaries to new and great heights. Movies like this are we watch movies to begin with.

The Florida Project is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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