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“The Florida Project” finds magic for those living in the shadow of Disney

Sean Baker’s sympathetic slice of life feature is screening on 35mm at UW Cinematheque on November 13.

Header Image: Left to right—Scooty (Rivera), Moonee (Prince), and their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto)—trek through the tall grass and explore the abandoned pastel-colored houses behind their Magic Castle motel complex in Kissimmee, Florida, outside Walt Disney World.

In 2017, there were quite a few standout releases that went on to become Oscar winners, like Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water. But one of the best films not to receive that treatment was Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which was only in local theaters for a short time. For Madison audiences who may have missed it, UW Cinematheque is offering the chance to see it on 35mm, on Saturday, November 13, which also coincides with UW-Madison Professor Emeritus J.J. Murphy’s brand new book on the film’s production.

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After Baker released his incredibly assured 2012 feature Starlet, he garnered a lot of attention for Tangerine (2015), which was shot on an iPhone 5S of all things. While The Florida Project does not leave the viewer dizzy with as much frenetic pacing as Tangerine, a dramedy about trans sex workers, it humanizes another oft-overlooked group of people: those living on the edge of the tourist-trap nightmare that is Walt Disney World. The bright, garish colors and whimsical names of the cheap, gaudy motels belie the seediness and dire poverty living within their walls.

The film immediately introduces six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who seem to run absolutely wild and unsupervised through the complex of the Magic Castle motel managed by Bobby (Appleton’s own Willem Dafoe). Watching the camera hone in on these two bored children living a stone’s throw away from what Americans have been indoctrinated to believe from birth is a kid’s wildest dream serves as the springboard for the rest of The Florida Project.

For Moonee and Scooty, The Magic Kingdom is not a flagship theme park but part of a series of castle-themed cheap hotels where unfortunate tourists end up, as do those who are not quite financially able to live elsewhere. The kids don’t seem to mind as they run all over the place swearing at other tenants or scamming people out of money to buy ice cream. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is not the most responsible parent and lets Moonee do as she pleases as long as it doesn’t get them into trouble. Halley tries to make ends meet as a stripper to pay the rent, at least for as long as she can without going further. She spends her days watching TV and chain-smoking but has a close friend (who also happens to be Scooty’s mother), Ashley (Mela Murder), who she can rely on when things get tough.

One day, Moonee and Scooty take their wandering adventures a little bit too far, and Ashley begins to have some reservations about her son interacting with Moonee. As the fractures in their relationship expand, we see Halley’s behavior become more and more reckless. Moonee seems to take it all in stride, as nothing seems to deter her from enjoying her life in the Magic Castle. Bobby does his best to keep the residents happy in addition to essentially serving as a father figure for Moonee and a protective overseer for the complex. His own son (Caleb Landry Jones) has a rocky relationship with him, but Bobby shows his heart is in the right place. In one creepy scene, Bobby manages to ward off a would-be child predator while the kids are playing.

In her dramatic feature film debut, Prince absolutely steals every scene that she is in. The cinema verité style and naturalistic dialogue help make all the scenes with the children more endearing, even when they are being terrible little shits. Sean Baker found Bria Vinaite on Instagram, and she has the true-blue, downbeat Floridian vibe down to a T. As these poor families eke out a life in the shadow of The Mouse, the children have arguably just as much fun as the ones whose rich parents who have shelled out a fortune at Disney World. Their unrestricted play may be seen as more dangerous, but there is something refreshing about the way Baker captures kids just being kids without the prescriptive type of adventures at a tourist attraction like Disney World.

Sean Baker returns to indie powerhouse A24 for the release of his next film, Red Rocket, about a washed-up adult film star, in December.

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