Soon after watching The Florida Project, I spent some time in Orlando visiting my in-laws. Usually, we’ll eat at a fancy restaurant or spend a day or two at one of the many theme parks. But this time I saw everything differently, really looking out the window as we drove. At the twisted trees, so old and huge, but clearly battered survivors of countless hurricanes. At the shabby homes just beyond the mini-mansions, tucked away behind chain link fences. Income inequality in Florida, especially Orlando, is some of the worst in the entire nation.
Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is 6 and she lives with her mom Halley (Instagrammer Bria Vinaite) in a bright purple hotel, a stone’s throw away from Disney World in Orlando. But she’s never been to Disney, and she probably never will.
The ambling, slow-paced narrative is told almost entirely from the perspective of Moonee and her pals. These kids are mischievous. They scamper around like the hotel is their own personal playground. The tenderness between their families at the Magic Castle hotel is familiar, sweet, and sometimes downright inspiring.
I was unprepared for how hard The Florida Project hit me. The way it perfectly captures kids in summer. How beautifully and subtly it was able to paint a picture of a group of families struggling with hope and empathy, as well as grit and realism.
Here, so close to the “most magical place on earth,” are palm trees, and buildings shaped like oranges, ice cream, and wizards. Residents of the Magic Castle get their evening entertainment from a handful of TV channels, parking lot fights, and the occasional abandoned condo on the horizon which mysteriously catches fire.
The colors are bright and distinctly Floridian. The script is straightforward, real people talking the way they talk. Screenwriter Chris Bergoch and Writer/Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) are bold yet gentle as they present us with characters endearing, heartbreaking, and ruthless. There is a lot of community and love at the Magic Castle… but not much trust. Scarcity doesn’t breed trust.
Vinaite’s performance completely steals the show. She doesn’t exactly have a “mom” vibe: she’s super young, tattooed, and toes the line of negligence. But she is so incredibly loving and patient with her daughter – in a way I’ve almost never seen represented in a movie. Perhaps because she remembers so vividly what it’s like to be a child. Perhaps because she still is one in many ways.
One reason The Florida Project shook me so much is that I’d like to be a foster parent someday. You see, places like the Magic Castle are the breeding grounds for the dark, painful side of the U.S. foster care system. So often these families simply don’t have the resources and support systems they desperately need.
The Florida Project provides so many emotional sucker punches. Similar to 2016 Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight, it shows, rather than tells, the beautiful, real, and raw story of everyday Americans struggling against great obstacles for goodness and survival.
That kind of project is worth spending some time on. In fact, I’d give this project as homework to anyone who wants to learn to be a better, more empathetic human. (See me after class for tears and hugs.)