Children have the magical ability to make every day an adventure. With their imagination, a wide span of grass can be a vast savannah, an abandoned house can be a ruin left unspoiled for hundreds of years, and a cheap purple motel can become a royal palace full of wonder and joy.
This is the world of Moonee, the 6-year-old girl played exuberantly by Brooklynn Prince in director Sean Baker’s film The Florida Project. To us, her home at the Magic Castle motel near Disney World is another decrepit eyesore in the touristy landscape of tacky gift shops and econo-resorts dotting Orlando. But to the bright-eyed, foulmouthed little girl and her friends, the place is fine, if only because they’re just barely aware of the dire straits in which they live.
Moonee and her mother Halley (played by Bria Vinaite) are what’s called “hidden homeless” and are based on a real group of people living in and around Kissimmee. They are outcasts from society, unsupported by institutions and unable to find work, forced to live in the shabby motel because no other place will take them. Haley scrimps and grinds to make the weekly rent and feed her daughter, begging neighbors for food and buying wholesale perfume to sell to rube tourists. When desperate, she hides the girl in their bathroom and prostitutes herself, swiping park tickets from the johns. All of this just minutes from the Magic Kingdom.
“Even though it’s a national problem, we wanted to focus on that juxtaposition,” Baker says of shooting in Orlando, “kids growing up in these motels outside of the happiest place on Earth.”
These people are hidden not only by the fact they aren’t living on the street, but also because they’re not included in official statistics. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the most recent Department of Housing and Urban Development survey on homelessness, taken in 2016, did not include those living in motels or couch-surfing.
According to Baker, he and co-writer Chris Bergoch did extensive research to ensure the film was “accurate, respectful, and responsible” to its real-life subjects, many of whom were interviewed during scripting.
“We approached it in a very journalistic way,” Baker says. “We literally went up to people and introduced ourselves and asked if they would be down for an interview or just to talk about their stories or perhaps their opinions on issues in the area. And we were talking to residents from the motels; we were speaking to small-business owners, even motel managers, some of whom inspired the Bobby character.”
He's the motel’s put-upon manager, played by Willem Dafoe. Suntanned and skinny, with a voice made hoarse from shouting, he’s something between a father figure and a landlord for the motel’s population. He keeps the lights on, settles disputes, and hides any proof that the guests are actually residents. He is wise to the cruelties of the world, and the brilliance of Dafoe’s performance is in small displays of mercy. He might scold Halley when she delivers the rent late, but he will never kick her out, if only for the sake of her child. In one heart-stopping scene, when a strange old man approaches the playing children, Bobby steps in to chase the predator away.
Aside from Dafoe, most of the cast members are first-time performers. Child actor Valeria Cotto, who plays Moonee’s best friend Jancey, was discovered by Baker in a Target in Central Florida, and Vinaite was found on Instagram. Such unconventional casting is standard for Baker. His 2015 film Tangerine told of two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles on the hunt for a two-timing pimp. The film was lauded not only for completing its cinematography on a trio of modified iPhones, but also for casting the actual sex workers who inspired the narrative in the lead roles. For The Florida Project, Baker had to adjust his directing style to working with a union crew and shooting with professional equipment.
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“My crew had to get used to the fact that I might go off-page sometimes or go off-schedule and change and be inspired in the moment to shoot something else completely,” he says. “I learned a lot of lessons, let’s just say that.”
Despite difficulties, the result is a gorgeous film that spotlights Florida and the plight of its subjects in a way that’s entertaining and sensitive, achieving the authenticity for which it strives.
“I wanted to go into this movie celebrating Florida and yet at the same time shedding a light on an important issue,” Baker says. “One of the biggest things for me is for Floridians to say, ‘We accept this film, this is accurate, and we love this movie and it does it right.’”
The Florida Project. Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, and Bria Vinaite. Directed by Sean Baker. 115 minutes. Rated R. Part of Miami Film Festival's Gems. 4:25 p.m. Sunday, October 15, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-237-2463; towertheatermiami.com. Tickets cost $13 via gems2017.miamifilmfestival.com. Opens in select theaters in Miami-Dade Friday, October 20.