The Florida Project is the most important movie of 2017. It is a beautiful look at the resiliency and hope of childhood. It is also the most powerful depiction of a segment of the American population often overlooked in America and certainly passed over in film. Not outright poverty but just a group of people doing enough to survive.
The movie takes place at a motel just steps away from Disney World but this is no castle and certainly contains no magic. It is a cheap motel where most residents are living there on the discounted weekly rates just trying to make ends meet. It is here we meet Moonee (an absolute delightful young actress) who is six years old and lives in the motel with her single mother. Since it is summer break the kids of the motel find things to do all day to entertain themselves. From spitting off balconies, eating ice cream, and general trouble making, I need to stress that these scenes would have never worked if not for the perfect acting, writing, and directing that captured the magic of childhood. Moonee and her friends just love life. They are focused on having fun and being kids. They aren’t worried about money, jobs, health, and the future… as children they live for the now and it was an absolute joy to see their moments of happiness.
On the other hand, the adults of the film have all the cares in the World. Moonee’s Mom works several jobs, does drugs, turns tricks, and despite her best attempts, exposes Moonee to some things no child should see. She isn’t a good mother but she loves Moonee and you can see that love in every frame that they are together. She wants a better life for her daughter and the contrast from the joys of childhood with Moonee to the weight of poverty-stricken adulthood is staggering. Moonee doesn’t care though, she just loves her Mom. Willem Dafoe plays the manager of the motel and is a lock for an Oscar nomination. He isn’t a hero or a villain but just another adult trying to do best with what he has. He is the closest thing that Moonee has to a fairy godmother and watches out for the kids even though it seems that he’d rather not see them ever again. You can tell his frustrations come from a place of caring. Dafoe was great.
The contrast of the World Moonee lives in and the one her mother lives in is harrowing. It is tough to watch at times and earns some truly powerful moments. The power of the moments is rooted director Sean Baker’s ability to make this seem real. To make it seem that at any moment you could drive by this motel and see every one of these people just getting by. Nothing was over emphasized or drawn out, this isn’t “poverty porn”, and it never felt forced. It felt like this World existed because deep in our hearts we know there are millions of Moonees. Millions of children who are too young and naive to see the “adult reality” of their situation and live happy lives despite the circumstances. Its beautiful and sad and hopeful and stressful all at once. More importantly, its moving. If you have a heart it will stir something in you that you may not have felt in awhile and hopefully compel you to never take anything you have for granted.
When the movie builds towards an inevitable conclusion for some characters, it hits a high note that won’t be topped in 2017. Sean Baker pulls back from the style of the film he used for 90 minutes to give us a moment that is one of the most heartbreaking and touching endings that I can recall. It is an ending that has a little girl, full of hope, full of wonder, full of purpose, who still has big dreams, who hasn’t been beaten down by the World, rushing towards a place that so many take for granted that was just steps from her door all along, while at the same time running from a reality that even a six year old knew was coming. It’s absolutely perfect and once enough people see the movie, I’d love to talk about it for hours on end. A moment of happiness or wonder may seem fleeting to an adult but it can last a lifetime for a child. Its important we never forget that.