Florida Project: In Disney’s Shadow


When Disney started looking for another place to build a theme park, they began what was called ”The Florida Project”. Eventually, in the 1960s, that would become Walt Disney World, situated near Bay Lake in Orange County, Florida. Consisting of several theme parks and resorts, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Disney World dominates its surroundings. This film takes place in Kissimmee, a city close to Disney World, and offers a very different kind of Florida project – sheer survival.

The Magic Castle is a cheap motel in Kissimmee and we follow three kids who live there with their parent(s), raising hell whenever they can. It’s summer so there’s no school. The kids are constantly trying the patience of Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager, but he also finds them amusing. Their misbehavior is getting increasingly worse though and when they set fire to an abandoned apartment building nearby, some of the parents have had enough. The leader of the gang is six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who gets her aggressive attitude from her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).

At the same time as one of the moms forbids Moonee from seeing one of her friends, Halley needs to find money fast and prostitution becomes an option…

Turning the motel into a playground
At first, they are incredibly annoying, these kids who are running around all over the motel and the area surrounding it, screaming, spitting and hustling tourists for money. They don’t stop being annoying throughout the film, sure, but as we get to know them and understand their parents’ situation, we do feel for them. Director Sean Baker, who got a lot of attention for Tangerine (2015), a film about a transgender sex worker, stays close to these kids in a natural way as they do their best to turn the motel into a playground, or even better, their own version of Disney World, a place that’s pretty much closed to them.

The casting is incredible, with many of these people being amateurs with little or no experience from acting. Young Prince was deservedly praised as Moonee and she has so many scenes where she feels one hundred per cent authentic; that speaks volumes about Baker’s directing as well. She has great rapport with another amateur actor, Vinaite, who plays her mother. It’s a forceful portrait of a young woman who in many ways is a child herself, completely irresponsible, immature and dangerously hot-tempered. Dafoe lends more experience in a wonderful turn as the mild-mannered manager who is the closest thing to a father figure that some of the kids have; there’s a great scene where he spots and then scares off a stranger who approaches the kids and acts funny around them. Baker and his cinematographer, Alexis Zabe, emphasize contrasts a lot. There’s real poverty at the motel, but its residents constantly bump into tourists with money. The motel has an ironic name; maybe the bright color of its purple façade is meant to make you think of Disney, but The Magic Castle isn’t fooling anyone.

The visual look of the film and the Florida beauty make it seem like a paradise, but people are struggling. Helicopters may be landing nearby and every evening ends with the fireworks from Disney World illuminating the sky, but there’s no relief here. It’s a journey to misery and heartbreak, but a compelling one.

The film has an open ending, sort of an escape into the fantasy that forms the basis of Disney World. The scene was shot there on an iPhone without Disney knowing about it. A cheeky idea – and it becomes a perfect way to end things.

The Florida Project 2017-U.S. 111 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou. Directed and edited by Sean Baker. Screenplay: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch. Cinematography: Alexis Zabe. Cast: Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby Hicks), Valeria Cotto, Mela Murder, Christopher Rivera. 

Last word: “The only time I got the kids to just play was when they were making fart sounds. Valeria [Cotto, who played Jancey] and Brooklynn became very good friends while we shot – and they actually remain best friends. So that was sweet, and that allowed us to shoot them holding each other and looking out to the lake and just being friends. The boys were different. Those boys were eight years old, so you can imagine: They’re not exactly loving hanging out with girls. I’m glad it came across that everybody was friends, but it got a little hairy at times.” (Baker, Slant Magazine)



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