The title of Sean Baker’s latest film – surging off the live-wire indie enthusiasm of Tangerine – sounds like a stand-in for a more pointed, eloquent title that’ll be sorted out in post. The Florida Project. It sounds incomplete, thrown together on a whim and never fully built or elaborated upon. In all its stripped-down economy, though, it so perfectly fits a film that seems birthed in a vigorous, unruly+ fit of enthusiasm that wouldn’t let up to more mature contemplation. A candy-coated vignette-style whirlwind of relentless juvenile abandon, The Florida Project so lovingly identifies with its young characters stubbornly stunted maturity, while crushingly acknowledging the consequences of living in a state of perpetual childhood abandon.
Not that the poverty stricken characters are given much incentive to grow up by their surroundings. The curdled neon-pasted motels they live in are given such naively escapist names as Magic Castle and FutureLand. The gift shops, ice cream shacks and supermarkets feature the brightest, most cartoonishly outsized exteriors. The atmosphere of Kissimmee, Florida encourages 6-year-old troublemaker Moonee (rapturously delightful newcomer Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) and her loosely stitched gang of peers to treat each day as a fantasy adventure, free of any legitimate consequences for their actions. When they are tasked with cleaning a car they’ve been spitting on, it becomes less punishment than another playful activity, as well as an opportunity to bring new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) into Moonee’s orbit.
Like mother, like daughter, it seems, as Moonee’s equally childish and irresponsible mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) maintains her own hurricane of immaturity, with more destruction left in her overstayed wake. She sufficiently pulls Jancey’s grandma Stacy (Josie Olivo) and Scooty’s more cautious, gradually maturing mom Ashley (Mela Murder) into allowing her hands-off parenting of her kid. “I’ve failed as a mother, Moonee,” she says without a hint of outrage, and actually a degree of enthusiasm for her daughter’s ignorantly destructive games. For Moonee to so endearingly shoot back “Yeah, Mom, you’re the worst,” reveals every details of how her daughter allows Halley to wallow in a state of halted maturation.
If it’s rough to get into the specifics of Moonee’s curdling childhood paradise, it’s because Baker’s film works in such an expansive vignette structure that often times you lose track of them in the film’s surging emotional sweep. Baker observes the many thrillingly unconsidered acts of youth without ever feeling unconsidered in how he observes them. So much is achingly held in Moonee’s subjective point of view, as she thrills to a buffet breakfast or plays in the bathtub while Halley’s life crumbles just outside her limited perspective.
Often we cut out of that sweetly intimate dynamic to the perspective of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who can see all too clearly the real world threats that Moonee’s too young to see and Halley’s actively pushing out of her mind. As much as we see Bobby encumbered by the non-negotiable force of Moonee’s adventures, we also see the strain of everything he can and can’t protect his tenant’s toddlers from. Ashley, too, realizes in one terrifying instant the consequences of her kid’s care-free stunts. Perhaps it’s the privilege of Halley’s whiteness that allows her to feel free putting off making the changes necessary to keep an emotionally healthy environment for Moonee.
Baker seems to continually bounce between visual registers of naturalism and artifice, at one moment exhibiting the fury of Andrea Arnold, the next, a more patient, less frenetic Wes Anderson, focused less on the lateral movement than the emotional journey of following it. When Moonee and Halley’s paths finally lead to an inevitable, wrenching and furious conclusion, Baker jumps into realms of ever-heightening fantasy, as helicopters buzz overhead and the crisp 35mm image of Alexis Zabe’s cinematography devolves to a scuzzy digital surface. It’s an overwhelming emotional crescendo that ultimately leads to a harrowing void. Neverland has gone to rot, and despite the irrepressible surge of Moonee’s enthusiasm, there’s no escape from tomorrow.