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Finding magic in a world of adversity

Pranaya Pahwa | Staff Writer

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

— William Wordsworth

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) grabs her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and takes her outside. She tells Jancey to close her eyes. She covers Jancey’s eyes with her hands. She takes down her hands and Jancey opens her eyes. The two of them look at the sky. It’s a rainbow. They discuss the pot of gold they imagine waits for them at either end. For a few moments, director Sean Baker just lets his characters look at the sky and wonder.

The above description captures just one of hundreds of tiny inspired moments from “The Florida Project.” It’s a film that is purposefully small and ironically, wonderfully rich. Baker’s film observes the life of six-year old Moonee who lives in a motel with her mother over the course of a summer. Not much happens plot-wise; nonetheless, the film boasts a beautiful and heartbreaking story. “The Florida Project” evokes deep empathy and reflection. It is a magical film.

The magic starts—as the title suggests—in the film’s location: Florida. Baker titled his film after the early name of Walt Disney World. Don’t let that confuse you. One look at the trailer may force you to ask whether the film is not more aptly called “The Florida Projects.” Baker sets his film in a Magic Kingdom motel in Kissimmee, Flo., a city on the outskirts of Orlando. Kissimmee is a community that was hit hard by the recession and never truly recovered. It is a city full of motels, abandoned condos and gaudy strip malls. This is no paradise, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic.

For Moonee and her friends, Jancey and Scooty, the entire city is a playground. Without care, they march through Kissimmee like kings and queens. Kissimmee is their Disney World. For them, street names like Seven Dwarves Drive and Prince Avenue are not bitter ironies, but invitations to let their imagination run wild.

Baker allows his audience to peak through these wistful characters’ eyes. He keeps the camera low and films the city lovingly, bringing out the community’s vibrant colors and daily rhythms. His stylistic approach conjures both boredom and the spectrum of endless possibility.

Through Moonee, Jancey, and Scooty, we learn about a full community of real, complicated people. Baker especially focuses on two of them, Halley (Bria Vinaite)—Moonee’s mom—and Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of the motel.

All three of the main characters, Moonee, Halley and Bobby, are dynamic, fleshed-out and real. Baker’s characters contain multitudes of layers and, thus, are not afraid of contradicting themselves. In many ways, the film is a study in their contradictions.

Just as we contrast Moonee’s drab reality with her colorful imagination, we contrast her cruelty and rudeness with her wit and kindness. The film opens with her and her friends spitting on a car and screaming profanities. Later, when the children visit abandoned condos, they destroy walls, break glass windows and eventually, though unintentionally, burn down the building.

Moonee is clearly seriously flawed and destructive, but she is also just a kid. Moonee and her friends don’t grasp the consequences of their actions, and we can’t help but root for her in her more imaginative and warm moments. She takes Jancey to a field of grazing cows and calls it a safari. She shares her ice cream with her friends. Even though we sometimes disapprove of her behavior, we don’t condemn her.

Her mom, Halley, isn’t as innocent, but in many ways, she is also a child. She cannot make ends meet and vents her frustration in petty, insolent ways. Moonee, in turn, adopts these same tendencies. And at times, Halley neglects Moonee completely. It is easy to point a finger at Halley and call her a bad mother, but the situation is more nuanced.

Halley loves her daughter completely. Yes, Halley will steal and hustle in front of Moonee, but she does this for Moonee. In the film’s final moments, Halley illegally enters a resort for its complimentary breakfast. Halley doesn’t eat anything. Baker doesn’t even film her. This is for Moonee. We watch her try strawberries and raspberries together, eat cinnamon rolls and wonder why forks aren’t edible. Halley loves Moonee as much as any other mother—she just doesn’t always know how to show it. Halley is a product of her surroundings; and while she isn’t blameless, the society that keeps her without opportunities, income or resources isn’t blameless either.

Bobby, the motel manager, watches over Moonee and Halley. He protects the children when the parents won’t and cares for his residents. He just does his job, but we can see that his kindness and humanity go a long way. Ultimately, he can’t save his residents, but he doesn’t need to. He just tries and sometimes succeeds in making their lives a little simpler. Bobby has seen hundreds like Moonee and Halley come and go. If he can maintain hope, maybe we should, too.

“The Florida Project” is a humanist masterpiece, written, acted and directed to perfection. A quiet and reflective film bursting with life. It is now available on Amazon Prime. Watch it and remember what it is like to be a child—what it is like to see a rainbow in the sky and have your heart leap with joy.