I don’t believe the words “Disney World” are spoken once throughout the entirety of “The Florida Project.” I saw the word “Disney” shown on-screen only one time, during a sequence where misfit mother Halley is walking with her outspoken, imaginative daughter Moonee alongside an empty highway strip near a Disney gifts outlet. There is an explicit lack of acknowledgment of Disney by its central characters, a tragic paradox where Disney’s magic is still omnipresent except for those who live closest nearby in the purple, lead-painted walls of the Magic Castle motel.
This isn’t a story about how Disney’s rampant consumerism generated massive economic inequality for Orlando’s weakest and most vulnerable. Nor is it a story about the plight of beleaguered, famished single mothers who fell through the cracks of welfare system. Instead, it’s about Moonee, a child simultaneously aware and unaware of her situation, a spirited tyke who despite living with a dangerous parent, concocts such imaginative, whimsical adventures they’d make a Disney Imagineer blush.
This is the most authentic, raw portrayal of being a kid on-screen I have ever seen. Actress Brooklynn Prince speaks with the blossoming vocabulary and fractured syntax of six or seven-year-old. She gets so excited and caught up her sentences go off on tangents that never get pulled back in, echoing the playful adventure her mind is always on. Tatum O’Neal earned rightful praise for holding her own against the adults in “Paper Moon,” and Prince deserves just as much praise for effectively holding her own as a child.
When we meet Moonee’s mom Halley, we understand why she’s so adept in the art of becoming distracted. Played by newcomer Bria Vinaite, Halley is a perpetually unemployed 20-something, surviving on leftover restaurant bread and money earned from selling wholesale perfume in two-star hotel parking lots. She is an R-rated woman living in a PG-rated city. Her blossoming rose tattoos mistake her for a flower when she’s actually an expletive-spewing, maxi-pad throwing thorn. Halley is pretty playful with her daughter and the other motel-dwelling rascals, but still creates an abusive environment through her own lack of filter or boundaries. This impacts of Halley’s lifestyle can already be seen in Moonee’s defiance of authority, but the child’s real trauma is still waiting to come.
The only person that acts as a true parental figure to Moonee or Halley is Bobby, the manager of the mote. Played by Willem Dafoe, Bobby spends half his day as babysitter and the other half scooping dead leaves from the pool. He fashions himself as a stern, no-nonsense arbiter of motel justice but in actuality is more of a guidance counselor who believes in second second chances. Even when Halley screams or curses or gives him every justification and reason to throw her out, Bobby refrains, knowing that if he evicts Halley, both her and Moonee will end up on the street. He is always at odds of how he wants to be perceived vs. how he actually exists, a stranger on the outskirts of the lives of the domesticated vagabonds who call his fractured motel home.
We’re never given any specific circumstances of how all these misfits ended up here, in this particular motel, at this particular time in their lives. But for writer and director Sean Baker that isn’t important. His movie is a slice of life from the orange state, an unflinching look at these characters not trying to escape their situation but find ways to merely cope with it. It can careen wildly with storylines seemingly unresolved, or sometimes with no plot apparent at all. But it is powerful, carrying the same youthful vitality of “Boyhood” but the harsh realities of “The Wire” or “Moonlight.” The ending is perplexing and jarring, and I wasn’t too sure if I liked how it wrapped up. But seeing how people in my theater were too stunned to stand when the movie ended, Sean Baker probably made the right call.