Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2017: The Florida Project

Kris Rothstein

Moonee is six but she's already been set up for a life of failure. She's foul-mouthed and cares about nothing but running wild with other kids and stuffing ice cream into her face. Her very young mother, Halley, behaves like a child; she is utterly irresponsible and experience has taught her nothing except that she doesn’t want to get arrested again. The difference between the two is that Halley’s fits of anger at not getting her own way are violent and vindictive, as seen in a shocking scene when she beats up her ex-best friend. It’s going to backfire on her eventually (as we can assume it has in the past).

Mother and daughter live in a purple motel called The Magic Castle (irony!) which is occupied by other marginal people, barely subsisting. Most of them aren't the downtrodden exactly, they are the checked out and the nihilistic. Halley doesn't care about anyone or anything except scamming her way to get enough money in order to do basically nothing.

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the motel’s manager and his character is carefully drawn using just a few details here and there. It would have been easy to make him a softy, a gruff exterior hiding a heart of gold who comes to care for a bunch of rapscallion kids. But that's not the case - he's just a guy trying to keep living and do a job, annoyed and sometimes amused by some kids. He is not a meddler but notices that Halley is real trouble and that Moonee is being put in danger and will soon become dangerous herself (she sets a house on fire). It is worth noting the effectiveness of the very naturalistic performances - even among intensely believable child performances captured on film, Brooklynn Prince as Moonee is excellent. And kudos to director Sean Baker for creating Halley as a character without absolutely no redeeming qualities who remains watchable and intriguing.

The Florida Project is a particular story which isn't afraid to present certain poor people in a negative light. But it is most interesting as a series of questions about how people live, why they live that way, who needs help, who deserves help and how to give it to them.

This is a pastel landscape, a colour palette which in another era signaled conventionality and blandness, but in the setting of the film creates a sense of the otherworldly, decrepit and revolting in its decay. The decor which once sought to hide the world's ugliness, now proudly displays it - broken down appliances, failed deserted housing tracts, scrubby swampland, all the tacky tchotchkes that the dollar store can vomit up. If this was a rural story it might be presented as nostalgic and liberating. There is a grand tradition of kids running wild in the woods or swamps or fields and then learning something. But this film strips away any pretense other than a harsh and uninviting landscape.

The Florida Project is a real indictment of the state of American society. There's little culture in this film, just disappointment. There are highways, gift stores and motels which once offered a cheap and hassle-free night of accommodation for car travelers living the American dream. All that's left is garbage, literally. Guests’ rooms are filled with cheap dollar store garbage, they have no access to kitchens so they create constant food garbage, charity workers show up to give them white bread and stale pastries and basically everything around them is cheap and fake. The film's startling long final shot shows the kids finally making a play for the real magic kingdom (the "Florida Project" of the title) and illustrating the thrall the fake Disney dream has over so many Americans.



Kris Rothstein's Blog
Kris Rothstein

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