‘Florida Project’ highlights magic in harsh reality

Photo courtesy of Cre Film

Although few tend to see it, there is beauty in mundanity. People are so predisposed to find the flaws in their realities and, more so, in the realities of others. They judge and grumble and criticize because they “deserve” better or because it simply feels good to be better than someone else.

In his newest feature, “The Florida Project,” director Sean Baker attempts to counter this trend. Set in a gaudily painted purple motel outside of Disney World, called “The Magic Kingdom,” the film follows six-year old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince in her debut role, as she finds adventure in all corners of her roadside wonderland.

To most viewers, there would be absolutely nothing magical about the decrepit Magic Kingdom motel, and Baker acknowledges this fact by introducing various tourists throughout the movie who revile the thought of staying at the purple motel.

Still, to Moonee and her brash 20-something mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), the motel is home. Behind Baker’s lush, vibrant camera, viewers have no reason to doubt them. The film follows Moonee and her gaggle of errant children from around the motel as they wander the strip malls on the outskirts of Disney World in search of adventure.

In the midst of Moonee’s summertime reverie, viewers see the darker undercurrents of the poverty as Baker examines Halley through Moonee’s eyes. Viewers accompany Moonee and Halley through more sordid “adventures” as Halley loudly and rambunctiously panhandles and scams her way to making rent each week.

While Moonee has a blast, the audience is always vaguely aware of the difficulties that the free-spirited Halley must overcome to provide for her child on a daily basis. The movie seeks the audience’s empathy. It neither glorifies nor condemns the circumstances in which Moonee grows up but simply presents them as is.

The entire narrative is quite naturalistic and infectiously fun, despite the context. Without a soundtrack, the film’s scenes are punctuated only by children’s giggles as Moonee and her friends race to spit on neighbors’ cars, share an ice cream or even turn off the motel’s power out of curiosity.

Brooklynn Prince is magnificent as Moonee, making every precocious line of dialogue ooze charm and innocence, even when she is yelling curses at shop owners at the top her lungs. Willem Dafoe (“Platoon”) also appears as Bobby, the kindly but firm manager of the motel.

Despite all of Moonee’s misadventures and Halley’s often illicit and inflammatory activities, he never fails to insist that the duo are good people deep down. As a stable and sincere character to contrast Moonee and Halley, Bobby helps stave off viewers’ instinct to dismiss Halley and Moonee as unprincipled, uncouth members of America’s poor. His character fills in Moonee’s world as a constant caretaker and defender against the ills in the world beyond Moonee’s stretch of highway.

Baker shoots his film so that one cannot help but fall in love with Moonee’s budget paradise. Baker’s long, panoramic shots add a sense of grandeur and scale to chain restaurants and strip mall outlets as the kids amble along the bottom of the frame.

Amidst the mundanity, anxiety and uncertainty of her and her mother’s life, Moonee finds wonder. Many of the scenes in the film are repeated throughout to add to this sense of magic in routine, as viewers see Moonee find new ways to experience and enjoy every nook and cranny in her off-brand world.

Ultimately, “The Florida Project” is a human movie about human resilience, wonder, kindness and imagination. The film focuses on how people cope and how people always find a way. By the end of the film, as Halley’s misdeeds threaten to shatter the image of paradise that Moonee has found for herself, Baker courts the notion that Moonee’s illusory world is not enough to cope. However, that is all people have sometimes.

Moviegoers will be buoyed by the sheer force of life that this film imparts. The film reminds viewers that, despite the special place Disney World has in the hearts of many, people like Moonee are out there making their own way.