Fountain of Youth: The Florida Project

The central image of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project may be an immense and collapsed willow tree near which the film’s principle child characters converse and play. One of them says she likes the tree because even though it’s tipped over it’s “still growing.” The geographical setting of Orlando, Florida connotes fertility and growth, displayed cosmetically on the tattooed chest of a strung-out single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaitte), with its graphic display of overflowing flowers. That Halley’s history, like the stories of all of Baker’s adults, should remains obscure—as if she and everyone else was cut off from history while insinuating a blossoming present—makes Baker’s whole picture itself an aching bouquet, its surfaces exploding with color as the players are fenced off from release. We see most of the gorgeous and squalid hybrid representation from the point-of-view of Halley’s six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), whose innocence shields her in Edenic stability while peripheral inferences remind us that her mother’s inability—or unwillingness—to move serves as the daughter’s own inevitable Hellgate. The Florida Project’s pained players, aging but still not mature, are eroding grapplers fraught with overwhelming background, tragically without the means of achieving perspective, locked in immediate survival impulses. On summer break, Moonee can play. But Florida’s most storied emptied promise is the Fountain of Youth, and summer’s ending.

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In a film that may be superficially dismissed as “slice of life” (with the banal audience complaint, “Well nothing happens”), The Florida Project’s mythos is within the beauty and squalor mingling like the fantastic and naturalistic, and regardless of its financiers, Baker has made a surreptitious “Disney film.” The temporary residences for low-income residents living on the outskirts of Disneyworld with its never ending stream of affluent visitors has just as many suggestions of an enchanted kingdom, sustenance for children undisturbed by big corporate traffic. Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valerie Cotto) can disappear “at play,” the businesses around them staging a Fantasy simulacrum with colorful architecture displaying wizards, dragons, castles, and enchanted realms (“Futureland”), as rainbows with gold protected by leprechauns arch in the distance. We’re told by the children that alligators live in the reeds near abandoned condominiums, though they trust the safety of pillowing imagination to not be scared of the carnivorous reptiles any more than they take notice to an actual threat, such as a roaming pedophile, whom the audience’s more jaded senses spot moments after his gait enters the frame. Most crucially for the children’s enduring sense of safety is not comprehending domestic fractiousness as the chaotic agent debilitating everyone in the film (and—why not?—the world).

Halley and Moonee live in a weekly-rent motel called The Magic Castle, confused with Disney’s Magic Kingdom to a humorous degree when a Brazilian couple discover they’ve accidentally booked their honeymoon not with the cartoons the Bride grew up adoring, but in a shady limbo of residents with no more chances. Protecting the modest palacial environs is the establishment manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who’s watchful and stern but fair in his judgment, and while much more responsible and adjusted than his stream of hard-luck tenants, injured by his own failings and resigned to a lack of power to change the plights of those around him and himself; he seems educated, temperamentally mild, and healthy (after all he’s Willem Dafoe, in guardian angel Platoon mode!), but is wise to how he’s not going anywhere either. His grown son (Caleb Landry Jones), who’s begrudgingly driven 100 miles to help his dad with moving appliances on weekends, says that he took the liberty of offering his father’s happy birthday message to Bobby’s ex, and Bobby angrily demands his son renege the offer (engendering the son’s dysfunction with his father). There’s trauma in Bobby’s past that he can’t forgive and can only forget by doing nothing but staying where he is, to such an extent that after this angry elevator exchange, his son has to remind him to press the floor button.

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Unable to be a valiant father, Bobby can—to an extent—play the hero in his Magic Castle, though not gracefully. He intercepts the predatory pedophile, but not before nearly spilling a full can of paint on a tenant; he turns the electricity back on after the kids infiltrate the forbidden fuse room, applause only given after enduring vituperation on his way to flip back on the switch; when Halley is forced to spend a night at a nearby motel and can’t afford the adjusted rates, Bobby “saves the day” by paying the difference, but the offer is rejected by the manager because of Halley’s vulgar behavior. In casting Dafoe, Baker has his token recognizable name actor who provides the illusion of comfort and strength, and it’s stirring to linger with Dafoe’s observances as Bobby fills out his role as a caretaker whose respect for duties often contradict compassionate impulses; his job marks time for him just as much as his tenants are marking time in week-to-week struggles to make ends meet. The illusionary “strong father” or “strong actor” (and Dafoe does marvelous work, to no surprise at all, with some relief that Baker’s provided a role worthy of the actor’s talents) proves ineffectual in his own paralyzing “enchantment” of social and psychological stagnation.

The real stars of The Florida Project are its non-actors, wild and stripped of the security Dafoe’s countenance and reputation privilege him with. Vinaite and Prince indelibly represent a mother and daughter who exhibit a parallel development of maturity, the ramifications for Moonee being an omen of doomed repetition. The film’s opening hijinks follow Moonee and her friends to the nearby low rent Futureland Inn, the signage inviting us to "live in the future--today,” though the space-age rockets decorating the lawn feel like Cold War fossils. The children race up the stairs and spit off the balcony onto the windshield of a car below, upsetting the owner who demands the damn kids come down and clean up their mess. Receiving a complaint, Bobby knocks on Halley’s door and forces her to take Moonee back and wipe off the spit. There, Moonee meets the car owner’s granddaughter, Jancey, whom the grandmother implies is the product of a teenage pregnancy, the absent mother probably plagued with substance abuse and financial difficulties. Ironically, the grandmother could be talking about Halley, whose laissez-faire attitude about Moonee’s rambunctious behavior is at first amusing, but really symptomatic of a household without a sense of time or structure.

To make her rent, Halley enlists Moonee as cute bait—appropriate for the corrupt Disneyfication of childhood innocence—for tourists at higher-end resorts as she peddles wholesale-bought fragrances in parking lots. Halley gets food courtesy of Scooty’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder), her closest friend, who works as a waitress at the Orange World diner and slips plentiful bags of leftovers for Moonee to pick up at the back door. When her wholesale scheme topples, Halley makes Moonee complicit in her most profitable endeavor, taking “swimsuit selfies” together, Halley’s pics then posted online with her contact information to lure johns for sexual exchanges. When her customer is distracted, Halley even pickpockets them of their Disneyworld wrist-passes, worth thousands of dollars and sold by Halley at discount price.

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Linked with the wasted Futureland signage, the sense of spending time with Halley is that there is no future. She’s able to hang on by her fingernails even as Bobby threatens her with no more chances before he has to kick her out (which, nevertheless, he doesn’t have the heart to do). While late night excursions to night clubs with Ashley—beautiful single ladies on the town—brush with prospects of finding a partner, there’s a mordant resignation already with the understanding that none of these men want to get hooked up with a mom (though Moonee would probably be less of handful than Halley). Halley’s ethos is that of someone committed to a deep diving apathy that’s screaming with recalcitrant ecstasy in its dome of hopelessness. Accordingly, the most notable cinematic antecedent to Vinaite’s tremendous characterization of Hallee is less Gieulietta Masina’s Cabiria from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria than Chloe Webb’s self-destructive punk-rock suicide bride/victim Nancy Spungen in Alex Cox’s masterpiece Sid and Nancy, her dysfunction and egotism determinedly wanting to pathologically aggravate anyone interrupting her “blaze of glory” demise with junkie partner Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman). That film was a love story, and so is The Florida Project, with the perverse mutation of a mother taking her daughter with her to her gradual demise instead of a lover.

Halley’s planted in the outskirts of affluence while still gleefully watching the fireworks display for far-off Disneyworld patrons. Ashley is contrastively making an effort at her diner, hoping for at least a management promotion to help her and Scooty get a leg up. She promises Halley a job once that happens, but it’s less likely that Halley would take advantage of this opportunity than Ashley will get the promotion in the first place. A turning point in their relationship is sparked by literal fire, after Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey vandalize and set ablaze abandoned townhomes. The scene is an entertaining distraction for Halley, who gathers Moonee to share the spectacle with her; but Ashley intuits the signification of Scooty’s decision to watch television instead of the fire. Here is the difference of watchfulness of two mothers, one whose observation is docile, the other whose capacity for seeing maneuvers her rudders in guiding her child.

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This difference has a grave significance in The Florida Project’s Low Mimetic/High Romance hybrid, the children’s “discovery” of fire (a light, and so denoting seeing) introducing discord into the Magic Castle’s songs of innocence: Scooty is forbidden to play with Moonee, and Ashley avoids Halley. Ashley and Scooty are living in a temporal universe, which is to say, time matters, and what one does in that time has consequences. We see this towards the beginning of the film also, where one of Moonee’s original playmates, Dickie, is punished by his father for spitting on the Futureworld car. Later, we see Dickie and his father moving out of the Magic Castle to a new life in New Orleans; their car filled to capacity, Dickie has to leave behind his box of toys before moving on; it’s a rejection of youth’s stasis. The destinies of these families are uncertain; Halley would do her best to keep Ashley in the mud with her (though Ashley, understandably gauging the threat Halley’s parenting of Moonee poses to the well-being of her son, snitches on Halley, contributing to the impossibility of Halley’s betterment), and the transparent economic disparities without the hope of aid from the government—lost in its own gridlocked enchantment, one could say—don’t bode well for any upward mobility, even for the most aspirant citizens. The conquistadors’ myth of Florida’s Fountain of Youth is a worldwide enchantment among the disadvantaged. Through his film’s bursting colors of euphoria and overcasts of stagnant depression, Baker seems to wonder if there’s a way out, and if so, is it even desirable to move into the “new.” Halley’s drowning and taking her daughter with her, but any gulp of refreshing air, such as fireworks, a house fire, a trip to the dollar store, or indulging in a big hotel’s continental breakfast, delays—and racks up interest on—the inevitable.

Moonee’s name is a reference to cycles of time, which is to say repetition intersecting with the assured movement of time. While she’s almost always innocently, however mischievously, at play, Moonee nevertheless has an inkling of a problem her situation holds, a curtain veiling the trauma that brought her mother to ruin and ushering her to a similar firmament. We see this as she plays in the bathtub and her mother’s tourist john comes in to use the toilet. The man is irritated by a child’s presence, and Moonee’s frivolous playing is frozen; she closes the bath curtain, and we recognize how this is not necessarily new to her and that she recognizes something’s wrong with this situation in which mother has placed her.

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Halley’s vituperative “FUCK YOU” encloses and nurtures Moonee’s world, and it’s not an exaggeration to identify the mother as Moonee’s own Hellgate as Baker’s camera moves in on Halley’s mouth during her last agonizing condemnation as the other terrible mother, Time, closes in to collect her debt after Halley’s surreptitious prostitution is uncovered by the authorities, social workers arriving to take Moonee to a foster family. The wide Hellgate mouth is archetypally identified with the leviathan or sea dragon, and so is the fantasy’s final beast to be challenged and slain. The child defiantly flees the dire present to Futureland, the sight of The Florida Project’s inaugural transgression. Moonee, who up to this point has held herself together, pleadingly crumbles in tears to Jancey, who takes her new midsummer friend by the hand and runs away. The realistic pretense of representation breaks down, as Baker introduces soaring non-diegetic music and his 35mm celluloid transmogrifies into the temporal overleap courtesy of the iPhone digital cinema with which he presented his previous film, 2015’s Tangerine. While The Florida Project has plenty of ammunition for social critique and life lessons, Baker defiantly clings to a cultural form unlocking transcendence (like Sid and Nancy’s taxi-to-heaven epilogue), embracing a Disney mythos heretofore nothing more than fantasy to its heroine. Jancey and Moonee break away from the empty swamp of the timebound Disney simulacrum of their home, and so slay the temporal dragon’s Hellgate jaws; they storm the Magic Kingdom, presented with a whole new representative opsis and musicality. The Florida Project works because it performs in two simultaneous modes, and while one mode feels hopeless, the other embraces the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, nodding to its representative world of play as filmmakers, like children, themselves clandestinely jump fences (the forbidden kingdom of Disney, in this case), reconciling innocence and experience.