In keeping with its florid art deco colour scheme, the names of the cheap motels in the Disneyland area in this movie are ‘The Magic Castle’ and ‘Futureland’. Pink is a favourite colour. At these residential complexes live numerous poor white families, the kind generally excluded from presentation in Hollywood films exported abroad. ’The Florida Project’ is about three kids who live here – Mooney, Scooty and Jancey – and of how they are having so much fun, they don’t really know they are poor.
It is the adults living in the week to week rented rooms of the motels who are trapped in their destitution, right in the heart of a princely destination for rich parents from America and the rest of the world who bring their children for a visit to kiddie paradise. Disneyland is clearly a metaphor for a wealthy nation that is past its best, and in which a great many people live from one week to the next, despite holding down jobs, all of them low paying. Souvenir shops, malls, abandoned homes, run down parks and swimming pools dot the landscape and everything looks colourful and tacky, including the sunsets.
There is a dual perspective at work in the film, and this is expressed through the height of the camera from the ground. When six year old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) is running around with her friends creating mischief in the motel and the one next door, the movie is filmed from about her height. We follow their antics as they switch off the power in the motel control room, argue with adults, share ice cream and lift trivia from shops. Never do we see them at school, though they do discuss the subject of recess at educational institutions, and come to the conclusion that if schools have playtime, they can’t be all that bad.
All the mothers in the complex appear to be single and Mooney’s mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), doesn’t ever appear to hold a job, but mysteriously manages to pay her rent in cash every week. She adores her little daughter and treats her like the best buddy she never had. She meets her clients only when Mooney is in her bath, or asleep.
By showing us two worlds – the magic universe of a happy and free child and the difficult life of struggling adults who are desperate to sustain that illusion for them and protect their childhood – the film achieves a bitter sweet poignancy. You realise how time bound the idea of ‘a future’ is. Social services will inevitably step in, take the child into custody and declare Halley ‘unfit’ for motherhood. But you are loath to see that happen.
Two performances stand out, one by the 7 year old lead, and the other by Willem Dafoe, the 62 year old actor who plays the manager of the motel. Bobby (Dafoe) and Mooney think each is a difficult person, as a kid and as an adult, but indulge each other, and it is through Bobby that we get a moral perspective on society and the inhumane ways in which people pass value judgement when they spy extreme poverty co-existing with extravagant wealth.
This movie is Wim Wenders’s territory really; the colour and social contrasts of America. But writer and director Sean Baker does it differently in ‘The Florida Project’. And it is a good watch.