It’s interesting that the new movie by up-and-coming indie darling Sean Baker is called The Florida Project. In showbiz lingo, productions are often referred to as “The (So-and-So) Project” in place of an actual title, to indicate their status as a work-in-progress, not yet completed. This pretty much sums up Baker’s movie. It’s a great idea for a story that’s been plucked too soon and put up on screen before the details in the script had a chance to ripen.
Baker is making a name for himself with his offbeat experiments in guerrilla filmmaking. (His last feature film, Tangerine, was shot entirely on cell phones.) The idea here is full of promise: a view of life as lived on the outer margins of society in the most ironic location possible—a cheap motel in the shadow of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Baker presents a plucky band of underclass kids making up their own adventures just outside one of the most celebrated, commercial Meccas ever created for children. But as desperately as Baker wants to say something profound and insightful about the lives he depicts, the movie doesn’t quite live up to its own ambitions.
Co-scripted by Baker and longtime collaborator Chris Bergoch, the movie’s central location is a garish purple stucco motel called the Magic Castle. Tourists occasionally book a room as an alternative to the pricey accommodations at the park itself, but most of its denizens are semi-permanent. Among these is six-year-old Moonie (Brooklynn Prince), who lives with her young, sporadically employed single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), hardly more than a child herself, in the room they rent week-to-week.
Moonie is a wild child who rackets around the neighborhood with her pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and a couple of other kids, gleefully getting into trouble. They spit on parked cars from the balcony, throw the switch that cuts off power, and vandalize a tract of abandoned, candy-colored houses—laughing all the way. That their destructive behavior is meant to signify spontaneous youthful joy in the midst of bleakness is the movie’s first mistake; their antics are soon more obnoxious than charming.
Halley and Moonie are fiercely devoted to each other, despite Halley’s utter lack of parenting skills. That default role falls to motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), whose crusty demeanor conceals his genuine concern for these at-risk kids, running around unsupervised all day. Bobby gives us someone to root for, chasing off a potential pervert from the kids’ play area, and making exasperated attempts to instill a sense of responsibility in footloose Halley—even as her attempts to earn and scam rent money become more dangerous.
Baker wants to make visible those struggling to survive at the deep end of the 99 percent, but he offers a chronicle of their day-to-day activities uncomplicated by any particular insight or resonance. The script feels mostly improvised; it sounds authentic, but lacks dramatic shape. And the plot tends to meander, with Baker repeating the same, or similar shots over and over again, or lingering over them forever, as if trying to make up in accumulated visual details what he lacks in storytelling chops.
Baker does capture the milieu of small, tourist-oriented mom-and-pop businesses all hoping a little overflow Disney magic will rub off on them—motels called the Arabian Nights, or Futureland; a gift shop sporting a wizard’s gigantic head, hands, and pointed hat; the orange-shaped juice stand called Orange World. But these things already exist in the streets, juxtaposed alongside Disney World, with no additional commentary provided by Baker.
Newcomers Vinaite (Baker found her on YouTube), Prince, and Valeria Cotto (as Moonie’s new BFF) make their characters seem real enough, but not especially engaging. (Although Mela Murder makes a strong impression as Halley’s waitress friend and neighbor, Scooty’s mom, who worries Moonie is becoming a bad influence.) Like Moonie and her pals, the movie desperately needs an authoritative voice to give it some direction.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
**1/2 (out of four)
Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite. Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch. Directed by Sean Baker. An A24 release. Rated R. 115 minutes.