Disney World (or Land) is called the Happiest Place on Earth because it’s a really catchy and effective way to sell people on a place being special. It also is a genuinely special place for millions of people around the world (well not me and I thought Universal was so much better). An escape from reality a magical world of memories.
2010’s Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County, took a look at a group of kids whose poor families lived in poverty in the shadow of Disneyland in cheap motels, barely if at all making ends meet enough to afford them, and frequently moving around when they would be kicked out of one. Like most Alexandra Pelosi works, it was pretty mediocre, but it’s a fascinating concept of poverty right next to a world of its own created by a media conglomerate and one of the largest companies in the world which for so many people is a place of dreams.
The Florida Project transports the story to the titular state and Disney World, but the basic premise is the same. The biggest difference is that The Florida Project is a dramatic title as opposed to the documentary Homeless. At the heart of the story is a girl and her mother scraping by with no real hope of escape and yet so close to the park that it’s a short trip to get views of the fireworks and their entire existence basically consists of picking up the scraps of the tourist trade.
The mother is an ex-con and an awful human being. She clearly loves her daughter but that’s about the only positive to be said about her. She’s a crappy parent who lets her daughter wander about everywhere, encourages her to disrespect everyone, and uses her as part of her cons and scams (and not doing too much to shield her from other things). She’s also rude, violent, unpleasant, stupid (despite the film’s attempt to insist otherwise), lazy, and just overall the worst (well discounting the attempted pedo). I’d say she never grew up, but I think she may be the least mature person in a movie which focuses most on the kids.
The daughter on the other hand seems like a decent person clearly in desperate need of any parent who isn’t awful. She conducts he own mixtures of cons and begging, taking handouts when she can, creating mischief, and just roaming about as if this whole area was her’s and her friends’. Each time she’s caught though, the only thing she gets is encouragement and her mother yelling at people for the crime of not letting the two of them do whatever she wants.
The whole motel where they live is a collection of oddballs and managed by a well-meaning and goodhearted Willem Dafoe. They are struggling one parent families, frequently tatted up 20 and 30 somethings who seem unlikely to ever be employable except by anything more than cheap restaurants and the like, those trying to carve out an illicit living before they are caught and thrown out, etc. It’s largely a Dazed and Confused style hangout film (though with a narrower focus) which functions largely as a series of moments framed by the community they live in as people come and go from the daughter’s life.
It really is this year’s Moonlight. In the way that it is a pretty universally critically acclaimed, in the way it sort of feels like the first third of that film (poverty stricken child living with a single mom with substance abuse problems in Florida who wanders through abandoned housing), the fact that a lot of it having me thinking “this is very good” without always feeling it, and the ending for reasons I’ll hold back on. The difference here is that while there are continuing threads, it is much looser and slower for better or worse.
Dafoe is great if a bit too stock in characterization, an attempt to round him out (with another appearance by Caleb Landry Jones) feeling more like a dangling thread that makes me want to see more of him. His character is just such a likable and lived in guy though who had me excited every time he showed up. The child actors are also extremely likable and naturalistic (even when being little delinquents), having no problems with handling the bulk of the screen time while Bria Vinaite is able to balance the caring for her daughter side with having to play a truly and intentionally awful character without making it seem forced. It’s the side characters though who give life to frequently limited screen time and opportunities to show off. The casting, makeup, and costuming department here all worthy of awards for the ways they make are able to quickly convey so much about a character in so little time.
As I said before it’s a very good film, but it’s too detached to completely connect with me and something missing which keeps me from loving it. The ending certainly left me feeling more iffier about the movie, but even before then it too often felt more like I was supposed to be appreciating it instead of doing it naturally. After last year it really feels like a perfect compromise Best Picture film, but I’ll give it a lot of credit for feeling different from the standard prestige film and truly creating a world of its own that by the end you truly know. Along with films like Moonlight and The Florida Project, we may be heading towards another type of standard prestige picture which I hope doesn’t happen, but I’ll gladly take films like this over the ACTING showcases which dominate now.