'Florida Project' Turns A Decrepit Corner Of Orlando Into A Cinematic Playground

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 9, 2017 5:47 pm

You had to wonder how director Sean Baker would follow up his shot-on-an-iPhone, transgender-prostitute comedy Tangerine if he ever got a hold of enough cash to pay for a star and a Steadicam. His extraordinary, almost-homeless-family dramedy, The Florida Project, provides the exhilarating answer.

It's set in a pastel Orlando that feels spiritually far removed from all things Disney — call it a "less magical kingdom." This sun-baked, off-ramp wasteland boasts brightly colored motels with knock-off mouse house names like Futureland Inn and Magic Castle. Built decades ago for budget-minded tourists, they're now filled with itinerant families who pay $35 a night to live in purple-stuccoed splendor.

These surroundings may be dreary for the adults who live there, but for 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her buddies Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), they're just the place to run wild — really, wild — without the benefit of Mickey, Goofy and other theme park mascots. Who needs organized attractions when you have sunshine, pals and all the time in the world?

Moonee is their little gang's irrepressible ringleader — champion windshield spitter, ice cream grifter extraordinaire, leader of expeditions to bring dead fish back to life in the motel pool. She's adorably unstoppable.

Moonee's mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), seems barely more mature than her daughter. She has green-streaked hair and is unable to hold a job even at the local strip club. She's not really cut out to be a mother, though she makes a general stab at being responsible by selling perfume (and sometimes her body) to tourists so she can pay their rent.

Halley means well, even if she can't follow through. That's enough to bring out the parental side of the Magic Castle's curmudgeonly, long-suffering resident manager (Willem Dafoe), who rides herd over unruly tenants — and the occasional wayward egret — with almost alarming finesse.

This is Vinaite's acting debut, and a striking one at that. Director Sean Baker found her on Instagram — he was following her account to show actors the qualities he wanted in the character. When he couldn't find those qualities with established actors, he asked if Vinaite wanted to audition. She turned out to be a fascinating find — a fine complement to Prince's tiny dynamo, who has the whole film riding on her tiny shoulders for quite a while.

The Florida Project takes its title from the Disney organization's in-house name for Disney World when it was still just a stack of blueprints on Uncle Walt's desk in California. But there's an unspoken irony in calling the film The Florida Project, since the motels Moonee plays in have themselves devolved into housing projects.

That makes them fertile ground for Baker, whose reputation-making Tangerine took place in an equally down-at-heels neighborhood in Los Angeles two years ago. Happily, the director's aesthetic hasn't been wrecked by his now having the money to pay for 35 mm cameras. Everything that was wonderful last time is even better here, from first-time performers who light up the screen to dialogue that is profane and very funny for a while, then turns resonant and wrenching.

Baker has imbued this whole terrific movie with a child's sense of discovery — the sort that can turn a decrepit, pastel corner of Orlando into a vibrant cinematic playground.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Filmmaker Sean Baker has mostly made what Hollywood calls micro-budget movies. Two years ago, for instance, he shot his award-winning comedy "Tangerine" entirely on an iPhone. What could Baker do if given a bigger budget? His new movie, "The Florida Project," answers that question, and critic Bob Mondello seems to like the answer.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Welcome to Orlando, home to Disney World and to a less-magical kingdom...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

VALERIA COTTO: (As Jancey) Moonee, Scooty...

BROOKLYNN PRINCE: (As Moonee) What?

CHRISTOPHER RIVERA: (As Scooty) What?

MONDELLO: ...A strip of low-rent motels in which a 6-year-old named Moonee and her buddies Scooty and Jancey...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

COTTO: (As Jancey) ...Scooty...

PRINCE: (As Moonee) What?

RIVERA: (As Scooty) What?

MONDELLO: ...Happily run wild - really wild without benefit of Mickey, Goofy and other theme park mascots because who needs attractions when you have sunshine, pals and all the time in the world?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

COTTO: (As Jancey) Freshies at the Future.

MONDELLO: This sunbaked off-ramp wasteland boasts brightly colored motels with knockoff mouse house names like Futureland Inn and Magic Castle. Built decades ago for budget-minded tourists, they're now filled with itinerant families who pay 35 bucks a night to live in purple stuccoed splendor and torment resident managers like Bobby, who's played by Willem Dafoe.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Bobby) It's only the second week of the summer, and there's already been a dead fish in the pool...

PRINCE: (As Moonee) We were doing an experiment. We were trying to get it back alive.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) That wasn't my idea.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) ...And water balloons thrown at tourists.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) They didn't tip us.

BRIA VINAITE: (As Halley) Are you serious? Oh, my God, this is unacceptable. I've failed as a mother, Moonee. You've disgraced me.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Halley...

(LAUGHTER)

PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah, Mom, you're a disgrace.

MONDELLO: Mooney's mom, Halley, hair streaked green and not a lot more mature than her daughter, actually is kind of a disgrace where mothering is concerned. Played by Bria Vinaite, she is irresponsible in ways perfectly calibrated to annoy Dafoe's long-suffering manager who is busy dealing with everything from surprise inspections to wayward egrets and has little patience left over for unruly tenants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Your kid killed my night. I wanted to watch the ball game. You're going to pay me for three hours that I got to work later?

VINAITE: (As Halley) Hey, guys, pay the man for his three hours.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) I don't have any money.

PRINCE: (As Moonee) I don't have any money.

COTTO: (As Jancey) I don't have any money.

VINAITE: (As Halley) We don't have any money. You're out of luck.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Speaking of which, you haven't given me this week's rent yet.

VINAITE: (As Halley) You don't think I know that? Chill.

MONDELLO: Bria Vinaite had never acted before. Director Sean Baker found her on a social media website that he bookmarked to show the qualities he wanted in the character. Then when he couldn't seem to find those qualities with established actors, he asked Vinaite if she wanted to audition. She turned out to be a fascinating find, as did 6-year-old Brooklynn Prince, whose Moonee has the whole film riding on her tiny shoulders for quite a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

PRINCE: (As Moonee) Could you give us some change, please?

RIVERA: (As Scooty) Yeah.

PRINCE: (As Moonee) We need to buy ice cream.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) 'Cause we don't have any money. We just have 5 cents.

PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah, we just have 5 cents.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) And the doctor said we have asthma, and we got to eat ice cream...

PRINCE: (As Moonee) Yeah.

RIVERA: (As Scooty) ...Right away.

MONDELLO: "The Florida Project" takes its title from the Disney organization's in-house name for Disney World when it was still just a stack of blueprints in California. But there's an unspoken irony in calling the film "The Florida Project" since the motels Moonee plays in have devolved into housing projects. That makes them fertile ground for Baker, who's shot-on-an-iPhone comedy "Tangerine" took place in an equally down-at-heels neighborhood in LA two years ago.

Happily, the director's aesthetic hasn't been wrecked by his now having the money to pay for 35-millimeter cameras. Everything that was wonderful last time is even better here, from first-time performers who just light up the screen to dialogue that is profane and very funny for a while and then turns resonant and wrenching. Baker has imbued this whole terrific movie with a child's sense of discovery, the sort that can turn a decrepit, pastel corner of Orlando that feels far removed from all things Disney into a vibrant cinematic playground. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAOLI SONG, "TIME TO GET OVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.