The Florida Project, the second feature from Sean Baker, walks the impossibly fine line between magic and desperation with seeming ease. Somewhere in Florida, along a stretch of highway, just a stone’s throw from the whimsy and controlled beauty of Disney World, is a run-down, week-to-week motel called The Magic Castle.
The Magic Castle is shabby but unapologetic. Tragically purple, patchy and faded, it stands out against the lush Florida landscape like an ill-placed smudge on a television screen. A blemish that seems to mar every beautiful face that plays across the screen. The Magic Castle is home to a core of regulars. Everyone knows each other. And everyone bathes in the tragicomedy of life on the fringes of “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Well, the adults do, anyway.
But, The Magic Castle isn’t their kingdom. It’s Moonee’s. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old with gusto to spare, has the run of the place. She lives in the motel with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinai). Halley’s only just keeping them afloat, and her money-making efforts grow more dire as the summer wears on. But those realities don’t touch Moonee. Her world is as magical and brimming with possibility as any destination resort. She and her friends seem to wear their innocence like armor, embarking on grand adventures in the name of obtaining a single, melting ice cream cone to share. And yet, it’s motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who proves to be their true shield. Bobby is classically gruff and even more classically a big ol’ softy underneath the hard face he shows the world.
It’s difficult to say what’s more beautiful about The Florida Project, its gleeful humanism or its grim honesty. Both halves of that emotional coin look gorgeous against the roomy shots of Florida in deep summer. This picture will break your heart, but it’ll damn near put it back together again too. This is the kind of filmmaking that’s so joyful and human, you can practically feel a heartbeat drumming behind the screen. The Florida Project is as absorbing as one of Moonee’s fanciful games and nearly as magical.
The Florida Project
Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Runtime: 1h 55mins
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Main Image Credit: Courtesy A24 Films
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