Illustration by Mia Turner

Sometimes the happiest places on earth are surrounded by the darkest. This is the area Sean Baker explores in his newest film, The Florida Project. In his previous works he has been known to show the more human side of things, and this film is no different. It shows a dark underbelly of the world that is always there, but doesn’t get enough attention. It showcases the lives of the ‘hidden homeless,’ people who technically don’t have homes and are living check to check. This isn’t the type of movie that you’d want of watch again. There are joyous moments but the overwhelming sadness surrounds everything. Although it’s tough to watch, it still deserves to be watched.

We follow the story of Halley, a single mother (who acts more like a child) and her daughter Moonee. They live at The Magic Castle, a bright purple motel right next to Disney World, housing mostly permanent residents. It’s summer break and Moonee does what any child would do, hang out with her friends. The movie takes place over a series of vignettes. No attention is paid to time passing, however you notice situations getting more dire. It doesn’t necessarily have a plot. I was never bored, but utterly enthralled and nervous for what would happen next.

Sean Baker does very interesting things with this subject matter. First of all, this story is almost entirely told from the point of view of the children. He has said that a main influence of his was The Little Rascals and this shines through. This was a really cool way to show how poverty affects these children as nothing is ever presented in a judgemental manner. These children are innocent, happy, and they use their imagination to help them through the tough situations they’re living in. The joyous moments in the film remind you of their innocence. Their friendships help them out of the situations they’re in and a lot of their dialogue is actually improvisation, making their scenes all the better. The juxtaposition of poverty being right outside of World is also quite thought-provoking. Everywhere is tinted in Disney technicolor. The cinematography is in bright fluorescent neons showing the dream-like facade that is covering this Florida town. It’s a little reminiscent of the work of David Lynch, who is famous for showing the dark sides of seemingly bright and normal things.

One great thing that attributes to the realism of this movie it its use of new or relatively unknown actors. In my opinion, the shining star of the movie is Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee’s mom, Halley. She has never acted before and Baker only found her because she was an Instagram model. She took only three weeks of acting classes before doing this movie, but she performs like a seasoned pro. She really embodied the character and made me sympathize with her character, even if she was a terrible mother. One of the only well-known actors in this movie, Willem Dafoe, plays the owner of the motel and a father figure to Moonee and Halley. His performance is getting a lot of Oscar talk, and while he is good, nothing about his performance stood out to me, at least in comparison to Vinaite’s. Brooklynn Prince, who plays Moonee, shows a lot of versatility at such a young age. She lets loose in a pivotal scene later in the movie, where she breaks down and makes a last plea to her best friend for help.

This movie took me on an emotional journey. It left enough of an impression on me that I don’t know if I could ever see it again, which is a testament to its impact. With beautiful cinematography, and a spotlight on the ‘hidden homeless,’ The Florida Project must be watched, even if you have to wince through it.