Outside of the bubble that Halley has constructed for Moonee is a far harsher world. Every tenant in the Magic Castle has no where else to go, paying the manager week to week. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby runs the motel as fairly as he can, but the rules are strict and he’s not averse to throwing people out. He also watches over the gangs of small children as much as he can, shooing away potential predators and humoring them when they want to eat their hard-earned ice cream in the lobby. In her need to keep Bobby paid, Halley does what she can to scrape together the money. She starts the film with a handful of allies and schemes that mostly help her get by, but this tenuous state cannot last and Bobby, who also lives in the hotel he runs and can barely afford to fix the many things that are broken, is only so patient.
Any film about the poor always runs the risk of being sentimental agitprop a few steps above a late-night commercial about starving orphans. There’s poverty porn, and then there’s The Florida Project. The weather and the focus on children keeps the proceedings light. The viewer always knows that the aforementioned Brazilian woman is correct in that The Magic Castle is a shit hole, but it’s easy to overlook when the setting is in sunny Florida instead of the Ozarks or a decaying Rust Belt town. It’s realistic but not gloomy, fitting for a film that foregrounds Moonee’s perspective.
That perspective is one of sheer buoyancy, brought to life by Prince’s unique and lively face. It’s incredibly naturalistic for a child of 6 at the time of filming, such that it’s likely Baker just set up the camera while Prince is playing casually with her castmates and put it in the film. When she’s not having the time of her life, (until, that is, the next day tops it), Baker also captures the interregnum periods of heat and boredom, when the viewer can see Moonee’s accumulated knowledge from the previous year of school bake off the top of her head in shimmering waves. It’s easy to be reminded of the South Carolina woman who left her kid in the playground next to the McDonald’s where she had to work, only to be arrested for child endangerment. When one is a single rung up from homelessness, who could think of child care? Why is summer vacation a thing again?
If it’s easy to love Moonee, and it is, Halley is the opposite. She’s abrasive and difficult, petulantly acting like a child and then furious when people like Bobby treat her like one. Moonee’s picked up many of her bad habits, and few good ones. Halley stands in marked contrast to Scooty’s mom Ashley (Mela Murder). Though she’s also living in the hotel and is around the same age, she works at a nearby diner as a waitress and doesn’t have Halley’s ostentatious appearance. As the mother of an irrepressible child trying to squeak by, a mirror image Florida Project can be imagined where Scooty is the main character and his friend Moonee pulls him into mischief while Moonee’s mom endangers Ashley’s livelihood with her requests for free waffles. Baker chooses to up the difficulty and instead centers Vinaite as a co-lead with Prince. It’s a miracle that Vinaite is able to generate a shred of sympathy, as Baker repeatedly catches Halley at her very worst. Her greatest asset is her absentee rearing of Moonee, as behind a charming kid must be a parent who’s doing something right. Halley finds increasingly desperate ways to support Moonee, and Moonee’s goodness redeems her mother.
Baker’s most impressive accomplishment is doing the work to find these unknown actors and get them all seamlessly working together. Vinaite and Murder were previously Instagram stars, an otherwise gross description that I now am forced to recognize as a potential source of talent. The real find is Prince, a potential Jodie Foster-level kid actor. Baker immaculately frames her and her friends bounding through the Florida sun, crossing the screen from left to right like a disadvantaged Calvin and Hobbes. Scooty and Jancey would follow her anywhere, and the moviegoing public should do the same. In the potent subgenre of movies about kids that aren’t for kids, The Florida Project is a welcome addition. B+