In 2013, there was a film called "Escape From Tomorrow," which was an edgy, dark, psychological thriller shot guerilla style at the Disney parks in Florida. The film was meant to be subversive and critical of Disney as "The Happiest Place on Earth." It was not very good, but I thought it was a noble effort. And now we have a film made in the same spirit that does almost everything right.
Sean Baker, best known for "Tangerine," is back with "The Florida Project." Again, he returns to the lives of the marginalized, this time the tenants of a budget motel called The Magic Castle, not too far away from the Disney theme parks. Six-year-old Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince) lives there with her foul-mouthed, unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), and spends most of her time playing unsupervised with other children around the motel. The closest thing they have to a babysitter is the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who puts up a stern front, but lets a lot of things slide.
None of the Disney IP appears in the film directly, aside from a quick shot of Cinderella's castle, but its presence is felt everywhere. The stores all have signs promising Disney merchandise, and a major plot point involves Halley pawning off stolen park passes. Most of her income comes from grifting and running little cons on unsuspecting tourists in parking lots, behavior that Moonnee is starting to emulate. All of it emphasizes the massive gulf that exists between the lives of the motel dwellers and the heavily marketed Disney experience. Despite living practically next door, all that the kids get to experience of the parks is watching the fireworks from an empty lot nearby.
And the real magic, of course, is that Moonee and her friends don't understand that they're so badly off. Through their eyes, their world is as colorful as any amusement park. The Magic Castle has a bright purple exterior and the Futureworld motel next door is adorned with rocket ships. Nearby businesses are all gaudy tourist traps with bright signage. Halley sports faded blue hair and is covered in tattoos. With all the adults too busy to look after them, the kids find their way into the Florida wetlands, abandoned condos, and every corner of the Magic Castle, constantly exasperating Bobby. It's all innocent fun, but only up to a point. As times goes on, Hallee's money troubles and spats with their neighbors start to compound, and some of Moonnee's pranks have serious consequences.
Little Brooklynn Prince gives Moonnee an irrepressible joy as she runs wild through the motel, fearlessly sasses every adult she comes across, and worms her way out of trouble. There's a tremendous poignancy in the moments of happiness she shares with her mother, who often indulges her and acts more like a playmate than a parent. The more time we spend with Halley in the second half of the film, struggling to get by, the more Bria Vinaite gets to shine. Halley may be close to rock bottom, but she's not going down quietly. And then there's Willem Dafoe, in the gentlest role I've ever seen him play, who keeps an eye on both of them with growing concern.
What I found the most endearing about "The Florida Project" is its tremendous sweetness. This is a film that has real faith in its characters and in humanity in general. There's a small, but solid community among the motel guests, and people look out for each other as best they can. Halley may be a mess, but she loves Moonnee fiercely. The kids may drive Bobby nuts, but he's quick to act to keep them out of harm's way. Even when things start to fall apart in the end, it always feels like everyone is trying to do right by Moonnee, as misguided as they may be.
The very, very end of "The Florida Project" has been rightly criticized for being too saccharine, and it ends up undercutting some of the film's messages too. However, I liked it because it left the characters on a hopeful note and re-emphasizes the sad implications of the Disney Dream. After all, it's when we're at our lowest that we need our fantasy lands the most.