Sean Baker's The Florida Project Movie Review: A Fairy Tale Set in Poverty

Image by Jim Degerstrom from Pixabay

In fairy tales, every child is a prince or princess who eventually gets a happy ever after. But what if the princess's parents aren't queens or kings? What if this princess grew up within the world of what Florida Project's director, Sean Baker, calls the hidden homeless?

Just outside the walls and fences surrounding the self-proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth" -- Walt Disney World -- there are people with no permanent housing, who choose, for whatever reason, to shack up for long periods of time at brightly colored motor hotels. The majority of The Florida Project takes place at the Magic Castle Inn and Suites, with its all-lavender facade looking less than picturesque.

Our princess, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the inn with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who perfectly encapsulates what we used to call a "fun mom." Moonnee spends much of the movie running around the inn and its neighboring properties -- other inns, the local ice cream parlor -- causing havoc and having a blast, collecting friends like she's the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Upon first exposure, Moonnee seems downright obnoxious. Sure, she's cute, but she has no sense of boundaries. She spits on cars, and when she's caught by the car's owner, calls her names. She enters the utility closet and shuts down all the power in the property, causing Bobby, the kindly manager (Willem Dafoe) much trouble.

But as the story goes alone, and you get to spend more time with Halley, you see where Moonnee has learned these behaviors. Halley is outrageous, unapologetic, and has no shame. Princess Moonnee models what she has been shown, but in a way that is innocent. She means no harm.

So Princess Moonnee grows up in her less-than-ideal home, with her less-than-ideal mother. But what can a princess do? She has great adventures and bestows goodness upon others in the way she knows how. She takes young Jancey (Valeria Cotto) under her wing and leads her on adventures. They score free ice cream, visit abandoned homes, watch the fireworks from Walt Disney World across the lake on a picnic bench, and in the most touching scene, visit a pack of cows. "See, I took you on a safari," says Princess Moonnee benevolently.

For Halley's part, although she's no one's initial picture of a good mother, you can see she loves Moonnee, indulgently even. Baker wisely doesn't explain how they arrived at this place in life. The focus is on the here and now. Halley takes her daughter, and friends, around town. When she has money, she takes Moonnee shopping or to get large breakfasts. On the other hand, she spends most of her time watching TV in the room, sometimes getting high, and doesn't give her daughter any boundaries. Despite her flaws, Halley's parenting in many ways keeps Moonnee inoculated from the ugliness of the outside world.

Then there is Bobby, who serves as sage, prophet, protector, and King of the Magic Castle Inn and Suites. Within the walls of the Magic Castle, Bobby is the benevolent guardian. You might think he is particularly indulgent of Moonnee, but we see his kindness extend to everyone on the property -- the drag queen, the residents who verbally abuse him when the AC goes out, and even the ibises (large birds) who wander onto the property are under his watchcare: "There's cars coming through here," Bobby chides them. On the other hand, Bobby isn't perhaps as careful about his other relationships outside the property, as we learn in a few scenes he has with Jack (Caleb Landry Jones), who helps Bobby with odd jobs sometimes.

Although this story is set in an unlikely setting, it's a fairy tale with no clear-cut heroes or villains. Everyone is truly doing life the best way they can. And Moonnee gets her version of a happy ending after all. She is truly the hero of her own story.

Although the film was made with a low budget, the framing is excellent, with scenes that breathe. Baker isn't afraid to hold the camera on a moment. Bobby smokes his cigarettes on the balcony, with a blue jean sky as a backdrop. And despite the poverty, the effect is often magical. This film improves upon each viewing, and it's a great example of socially conscious cinema, minus the preaching.