There’s an opinion piece on Huffington Post that’s been popping up in the margins of the site for the last few months. It’s there almost every time I check in on the day’s breaking news. It’s by Kayla Chadwick, and the title – I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People – has become something of a mantra for me.
Every time I hear someone happily talk about throwing undocumented immigrants out of the country, even if they have children who are American citizens, which would tear families apart, that title runs through my mind. Whenever someone espouses the belief that we should end the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a government subsidy that helps millions in poverty (many of whom are children) eat, because there is a small fraction who abuse the system, I think of that headline. The article itself is succinct and elegant. It’s impossible to have a meaningful dialog about any issues, Ms. Chadwick states, if basic empathy for other human beings isn’t a shared value.
Sean Baker’s new film, The Florida Project, is a video essay on empathy. It’s a moving, funny, and heartbreaking depiction of the poverty many Americans struggle with while living in the richest country on earth. It shows the resilience of children to make the best of any situation. It also feels incredibly authentic.
The movie shows us one summer in the lives of guests at The Magic Castle extended-stay hotel. In particular, we see the world through the eyes of Moonee, a precocious 6-year-old girl, and her friends. Moonee and her unemployed mom, Halley, are unfailingly referred to as guests by hotel management because calling them what they really are, residents, would give them legal rights the hotel’s owners can’t afford, and the Florida government won’t allow.
The Magic Castle sits on the outskirts of Orlando, a town where millions come to soak up the sun and visit Mickey and his friends at the real Magic Castle. There is no better metaphor for the crushing income inequality that exists in America than seeing these hotel residents existing side by side with tourists happily spending their vacation, and their disposable income, at Walt Disney World.
One particularly funny moment comes early in the picture when a newlywed couple from overseas checks into the hotel. The groom immediately realizes his assistant made reservations at the wrong place, and the bride berates her new husband for ruining their honeymoon. In a lesser, more cloying movie, this couple would have had no other options than to stay at The Magic Castle. They would have bonded with Moonee and her mom, learned a valuable life lesson, and helped the struggling pair out of their dire situation. The Florida Project, thankfully, isn’t that movie. The newlyweds only appear in this one scene. Moonee and her friends laugh as the groom frantically makes arrangements for better accommodations, and the bride gives him hell for his mistake. They’re gone as quickly as they came, leaving Moonee and the rest of the outcasts at The Magic Castle to fend for themselves.
Halley provides for Moonee in any way she can. She scrapes together the weekly rate for their room by selling perfume in the parking lots of resorts. She gets help feeding Moonee from her friend, Ashley, who lives directly below her at the hotel. Ashley works at a local diner, and during her shifts she sneaks food to Moonee at the back door. The fact that Ashely has a full-time job but can still only afford to live in an extended-stay hotel is a point Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s script never belabors. No one ever talks about it. It’s just the way things are.
And so, the hot Florida summer inches along. Moonee and her pals make fun and mischief wherever they can. They beg for nickels and dimes from passersby so they can buy ice cream cones. They cause headaches for Bobby, the manager of the hotel. At one point, Bobby must play detective to discover the culprits when the kids go into a restricted area and shut off the power to the whole hotel.
The put-upon hotel manager could have served as a perfect device for some heavy-handed moralizing about Halley’s parenting skills, but that doesn’t interest Sean Baker in the slightest. He just focuses on what any great humanist artist does: showing things the way they are with no judgement of his subjects. Bobby is exasperated, and he does threaten to kick Halley out when her infractions risk his own livelihood, but he is also very caring. The relationships between Bobby and his guests, especially the kids, are some of the most complex character dynamics available on screen this year.
The actors in The Florida Project all give performances that complement and enhance this nuanced look at people living on the fringes of our society. Willem Dafoe delivers an understated and mournful career high as Bobby. Dafoe is the sort of actor who shows entire dimensions of a character through the flash of a smile. One scene, in which Bobby confronts a potential predator who is paying a little too much attention to the kids, allows Dafoe the chance to explode with righteous anger before returning to his unassuming kindness.
Bria Vinaite, who plays Halley, had never acted before Sean Baker offered her the role. Baker discovered Vinaite on Instagram, deciding she would be perfect for Halley based on her social media presence. She gives the impression that she’s essentially playing a variation of herself, but it works both for Halley and the movie as a whole. The real revelation of The Florida Project, though, is six-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince as Moonee. Prince exudes confidence in front of the camera, and was born to perform. Her Moonee is a smart-ass, hilarious, determined little girl hiding heart-break just under the surface. Like Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Prince’s performance shows a preternatural acting ability that has made her an early favorite for an Oscar nomination.
The Florida Project is a devastating, beautiful film. In a true sign of ridiculous nit-picking, I have reservations about its final 30 seconds. The emotional climax concerning the consequences of Halley’s actions feels false when contrasted with everything that’s come before it. There is a musical crescendo that seems out of place considering there has been no score in the movie up to that point. It’s a tiny complaint considering Sean Baker has otherwise crafted one of the best films of the year. His warm and empathetic look at people that our society tries to make invisible is a great achievement in humanist cinema.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- The Florida Project is one of the best films of the year. Expect it to get a Best Picture Oscar nod when the academy announces nominations early next year.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Like any great art, the movie tested my boundaries. It made me explore my own sense of empathy. It's so easy (and might be our genetic predisposition) to judge people like Halley instead of seeking to understand them. I had a few moments where all I wanted to do was blame her for her situation. A little reflection about how easy it is to find yourself in poverty, and how hard it is to find a way out was all I needed to find my own way out of judgement. For example, at one point, Halley gets some cash she wasn't expecting, so she takes Moonee to a dollar store and tells her to pick out anything she wants. It would be easy to point a finger at her poor decision-making skills. She should save the money, not spend it so recklessly. But, is it unexpected (or even shameful) that people who face constant deprivation would want to escape from it for even a day? It's particularly unsurprising when you consider the fact that our society is built around the myth that buying things can make you happy.
- Bria Vinaite learned how to act in six weeks. Her performance, especially considering that fact, is incredible.
- The look of the movie is beautiful. It's shot with a soft glow, and the pastels of the hotel mixed with the gorgeous sunsets (quite a few scenes were shot at magic hour) give it a distinct and glorious aesthetic.
- I came out of my screening thinking, "I'm pretty sure I just saw this year's Moonlight."
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos knocked me for a loop with last year's The Lobster. One of that film's stars, Colin Farrell, is working with Lanthimos again in his new movie, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It's a morality tale that promises to have a twisted feel that only Lanthimos can provide.