People Left Behind

The Florida Project a film by Sean Baker.  With Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinalte, Christopher Rivera.  ****1/2

The Florida Project is simultaneously a touching tribute to the innocence of childhood and one of the most nerve-wracking movies I’ve ever seen.  As these adorable children walked around the grungier parts of Orlando, I kept expecting some catastrophe to happen.  There are various ways to abuse a child: physically, sexually, psychologically, emotionally.  But it wasn’t until I saw The Florida Project that I realized that the worst way might be to let your child do whatever she wants, especially if you yourself, as a mother, are a nihilistic free spirit who seems ready to flip the bird at everybody you see.  Your child picks up on your attitude, and follows it.  I kept thinking, as I watched the adorable Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the emotional and dramatic center of this film, this kid is doomed.  No matter what happens.  She’s doomed.

I would have to say, though, that Brooklynn Prince (where the hell did she get that name?) ranks among the greatest child actors I’ve ever seen, adorable and extremely talented.  I don’t know what her parents are going to do with her now that she’s learned to flip the bird and yell Fuck You! at a passing helicopter, apparently just because her on-screen mother doesn’t like the noise.  And who knows how her talent will translate once she gets older.  But at the moment she’s Academy Award material.

An equal focus of the movie is the Florida landscape itself, apparently the poorer more rundown section of Orlando, the part that was built in the fifties and sixties.  Sarasota—where my mother went in the winter, and where I often visited her—had a similar section.  A huge store that looks like half of an orange, a massive gift shop that looks like a cartoon character’s head, a motel called Futureworld.  Those things seemed like a good idea at the time.  They’re not so good as Futureworld becomes Pastworld, or Patheticworld.

The kids—Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Otto)—are not entirely innocent.  The first childish prank we see Monnee and Scooty engage in is spitting from the second floor balcony onto a car windshield, and they have also apparently thrown water balloons at tourists and put a dead fish in the swimming pool.  It is summer in the middle of Florida, and these are not the kids with music and ballet lessons and baseball practice to go to.  We’re in the world of the down and out, women who dance at Gentleman’s Clubs or flip burgers at a fast food place, aging motels populated by people living there with special weekly rates, just getting by.  The children in this situation have the kinds of summers we used to, long hot days (these days look brutally hot) stretched out in front of you with nothing in particular to do.  It’s paradise, in a way.  It’s also hell.  The whole world is your oyster.  But the only thing you can think of to do is sit on the balcony and laugh at the old woman who sunbathes topless.

The moral center of the film is a motel manager named Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who knows these are just kids and the whole situation is not really their fault, who actually likes them, wants them to have a good time, but is also barely scraping by in a motel that is falling apart.  When the kids go in the utility room and turn off the power, he’s the one who gets the blame.  When they drip ice cream in his lobby he’s the one who chases them out.  But he also watches out for them, and when an apparent child molester hangs around in the playground, he takes care of the situation.

The film, to its credit, drops us right in the middle of this situation.  We don’t know how Bobby got here, with a son who helps him with the shit work for a while but finally says he can’t do it anymore.  We don’t know how Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinalte) got here, a good-looking woman with a great body that is pierced in various places and heavily tattooed, who seems even more desperate for employment than everyone else we meet (at least Scooty’s mother has a job at a crummy restaurant, and Bobby has the motel).  We don’t know how she happens to have had a child, who or where Moonee’s father is.  We’re plopped into the middle of a situation that doesn’t look good and has no prospects of getting better, waiting for a disaster to happen.

Halley is the movie’s most troubling character.  You would have to say that she loves her daughter; she pays attention to her when she’s around, and does lots of things with her.  We assume she’s been screwed over by some asshole man—or maybe a whole bunch of them—and that in some way this whole thing isn’t her fault (in another way it is, though.  She’s made some bad choices).  She’s a strong feisty woman trying to get by.  But loving your daughter doesn’t mean giving her free rein.  Raising a strong woman doesn’t mean letting her be a brat, which she sometimes is (and gets away with it by being so adorable).  We can see in Halley’s face sometimes that she’s struggling with demons and knows things are heading for a bad end.  Her cheerful feisty matter is a way of whistling in the dark.  She’s going to lose this battle.  She’s got loser written all over her, pretty as she is.

In the meantime, we wonder why there are so many scenes of Moonee playing alone in the bathtub.  Eventually we find out.

Apparently The Florida Project was an early name for Disney World, which doesn’t appear until the end of the movie but which is a looming presence throughout.  In a way this is a movie about gentrification, about the working class that is left behind when a city gets a windfall like Disneyworld.  It’s wonderful for the people who get to go there, and the ones who profit from it.  It’s not so great for those back in the old Orlando.