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Sean Baker’s recently released film, The Florida Project, forces its audience to repeatedly undergo this reflection as they follow a child’s symbiotic relationship with the parasitic world around her.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) lives in a purple castle on the outskirts of Disney World. She is fortunate enough to have her mother, Halley (Bria Viniate), at home with her for most of the days. When she does go to work selling goods to tourists, Moonee often goes with her. Moonee has three friends that also live within the many rooms of the castle. They have fun exploring the grounds outside or of the nearby merchants. They pay frequent visits to the local ice cream shop where they receive free ice cream from kind tourists. Occasionally there is the free firework show. In the eyes of a child, life is pretty darn fun.
As we step back, we learn the true story of the “Magic Castle.” The “Magic Castle” (although partially structured as a purple castle) is a broken-down motel in which most of the inhabitants are long-term tenants who barely can afford their rent. These tenants are forced to leave one day per month to avoid landlord-tenant liability laws. Drugs and mild-violence are frequent. The hotel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), attempts to “manage” the hotel. Faced with so many personalities; his job is mostly to prevent the hotel from being burned down and to distract the inhabitants from harming each other or effecting harm to themselves.
Willem Dafoe is receiving quite the acclaim for his role as Bobby. Bobby is often forced to fill the void as the parental figure for the children within the castle where biological parenting was lacking. He so naturally takes on this role. Baker tactically uses Bobby to keep the audience’s emotions within a tight spectrum throughout the film. It is a tough job in such an unstable environment. Willem Dafoe controls this tension masterfully.
After Director Sean Baker introduced Tangerine to the film world, audiences knew that he was fearless. In The Florida Project, he proves that he also is compassionate. The approach taken in this film is no less courageous than the predecessor – so fans of Baker’s authenticity must not worry. But this film has an added layer of dimension to its core. Some may call it growth within his film-making. I would stress even further. Baker’s demeanor is intelligent. He is targeted and he will not divulge unless there is reason.
Well there is a reason now. There is a purpose for the inquiry into those living on the margin of acceptable society. By sticking to his independent film roots he is able to voice for this subset through an unfiltered lens. Its amorphous borders to create allow for Baker to pin altering ideologies against each other. It is much easier to digest and to self-reflect at that intersection. Baker knows that.
This social ambiguity at the foothills of Disney World adds further complexity to Baker’s film. Moonee’s childhood is generally permissible. We are hopeful that there is a sense of freedom that will benefit her within her adult years. Equally waning is the gutwrenching realization of the struggles that she will face.
Most moviegoers will not be in the same financial situation as Moonee and her mother, nor as any member of the Magic Castle family. There will be situations that resonate. That is important in Baker’s message. This film beautifully projects the hardships of the less fortunate without ostracizing them.
When watching this film, you won’t only feel anger; you are also able to smile. Although, when you irk out a smile, it will not be without shame. As shame distills, it will quickly turn to hope. This is the genius within Sean Baker’s film.