If you cast your mind back to the heady days of childhood, a feat that may be less taxing for some than others, you will recall how even the most troubling of events could be coated with a playful glow with little to no effort.
That’s not because you were masterfully able to bend reality to your will but simply because you were a child, of limited life experience, and hopefully pain and deprivation, who saw the world less in terms of what it wasn’t or couldn’t deliver, and more in terms of what you thought it could.
In Sean Baker’s masterful exploration of childhood lived on the margins, The Florida Project, we meet Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a child who is able to stare down, without realising she has to, some deeply uncomfortable truths about her life.
We witness her power to interpret things through her childlike lens when she and her carefree friends – sure they can be naughty, petulant and rude but they are at heart simply kids being kids – Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) go on an “adventure” (that word springs up again and again) to an abandoned housing estate near the motel where she lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).
With not much in the way of possessions or a permanent home, or you could argue a fully-functional mother – Halley, who hawks cheap perfumes to rich middle class tourists and acts as a prostitute to make ends meet, is both attentive and neglectful all at once – Moonee imagines a vacant, derelict bedroom as a girl’s palace full of a bed, bookcase and toys filled every available space.
It’s a beguiling vision and one that Jancey, Moonee’s best friend that she meets one days when she spits on the car of Jancey’s grandmother and guardian Stacy (Josie Olivo), brings disarmingly to life; perhaps she knows it has no chance of coming true, at least not right then, but Moonee betrays no sign of that or any other sobering realisation, choosing instead to imagine what could be.
It’s part of wider pattern of the way Moonee and her friends approach a life on the edges of Oralndo’s glittering, resort-filled tourist district.
While Disney World and its satellite tourist havens exist in a rarified bubble where everything is possible and magical, on the fringes sit motels such as The Magic Castle (where Mooney and Hallee live), Futureland and The Arabian Nights, places long past their glory days but still trying to cash in on the tourist dream where they can.
Sitting cheek-by-jowl with Disney mechandising outlets and standalone shops like Fruit World that exist in a time and place most modern tourists don’t have time for – that becomes painfully obvious when a Braziliain honeymooning couple arrive at The Magic Castle, realising it’s not as magical as it’s online persona suggested – the only magical things about these motels are their names.
The largely in-charge manager of The Magic Castle, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is, despite initial appearances, just hanging onto the tattered edges of the American Dream himself, does his best to keep the place ship-shape and ready but it is, like much of the area around it, a mere shadow of its former hopeful self.
It’s in this world that we find Moonee, cocooning herself, without knowing she has to, in the endlessly colourful possibilities of childhood.
Unaware that she is deprived, she successfully fashions each day into a realm of adventures, ice cream and fun-filled escapades, with the cinematography by Alexis Zabe, bathing the film in bright, exuberant colours that belie the hand-to-mouth existence of many of the area’s residents.
At no point though does the screenplay by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, which exists in an un-augmented slice-of-life drama milieu that simply exists without narrative beginning or end (despite the very clever and moving final scene), judge any of the characters.
Everyone’s story, most poignantly Moonee’s is allowed to play out as is, giving out harrowing insight into a world that requires far more than a precocious child’s rich and vibrant imagination to paper over.
And yet that, for the most part all Moonee needs – out of days that filled with little in the way of timetabled rigour or parental attentiveness, she carves out excursions to old trees covered in hanging moss where she and Jancey eat the bread and jam delivered by social workers, where hotel buffets are a place of extraordinary deliciousness and unheard of choice, and where ice cream is a rare and breathtakingly exciting step away from a life not filled with the kinds of things most middle class kids take for granted.
Looked over by Bobby who, despite his exhaustion at life, acts as a kind of father to many of the kids, Moonee’s life is one that defies the odds, untouched thanks to her power of conjuring the possible out of the impossible and Halley’s half-hearted attempts to fashion a reasonable life for her daughter.
While, as noted, no judgement is meted out, it becomes all too apparent very quickly, that there is no happy ending waiting in the wings.
This is life lived on the precipice, and while Moonee remains blissfully unaware of the deprivations that are the stuff of everyday life for Halley and best friend (and Scooty’s mum) Ashley (Mela Murder), she is in the firing line as much as anyone around her, a sobering prospect for anyone watching the film.
But what makes The Florida Project such a sublime, warmhearted joy despite all the swirling barbs of reality poking their way through the nuanced, slowly-unfurling narrative, is the sheer, cheeky exuberance of Moonee who approaches life as a carpe diem of banquet buffet proportions (quite literally in one especially poignant scene).
It’s nothing of the kind, of course, and is cold, nasty and uncaring for the most part, but Moonee realises none of this, happy to treat life as a playground of possibilities, a delightful outlook that you hope and pray she will never lose.
Alas, the film’s ending which is all too predictable – not because of poor writing but simply the way life is – suggests that will not be possible, or at least a struggle of epic proportions as Moonee’s blissfully happy world of ice creams and carefree fun is impinged upon by the unflinching reality that everyone else in the film is all too familiar with.