Millions of children the world over dream of visiting Disneyworld. But Sean Baker’s heartbreaking film The Florida Project, throws light on those living in dire poverty in the shadow of Cinderella’s castle in Orlando.
The film underscores the social divide in America through the eyes and lives of children. The film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee and her friends, roaming around in the sweltering Florida summer months.
They live in cheap motels like the “Magic Castle,” and receive little to no supervision from their single, underemployed or unemployed mothers.
Baker said he wanted to reveal the darker underbelly of an America that barely subsists.
WATCH: An America of Poverty Subsists Alongside the Glitter of Disney World
“My co-screenwriter brought this topic to my attention and the fact that there are families with children living in budget motels outside what we consider ‘The happiest place on earth,’ a place for children, and that juxtaposition obviously grabbed me,” the filmmaker said.
Inspired by Little Rascals
Baker says he was also inspired by the Little Rascals, the comic shorts about a gang of children getting into trouble in the 1920s and 1930s. The series was set against the Great Depression, depicting poverty through the life and resilience of children.
Baker says, Brooklynn Prince, who plays the boisterous Moonee is the present day Spanky McFarland, one of the main characters in Little Rascals.
Moonee’s childlike pranks verge into serious offenses.
“Spanky was the quintessential little rascal, and I said, ‘We are not going to move forward unless we find him’ and one day, Brooklynn Prince walks in the room for the audition and she has all the wonderful cuteness, the wit, the absolute hilarity,” Baker said.
The motel manager, Bobby, is the only character played by a big star, Willem Dafoe. Bobby is the only one who can barely supervise these unruly kids. He is both the disciplinarian and a protector of these children.
Baker says Dafoe’s character was inspired by a real low-budget motel manager in Florida.
“When Willem Dafoe was actually cast, he wanted to understand the world as much as we did,” Baker said. “He wanted to understand his character, so he actually came a week early from production, before we even needed him, and he interviewed this gentleman, he interviewed others. I think he absorbed, he started to develop his character by being there and understanding the situation. And then, one day, he comes to the set and he has this spray tan on, he had all kinds of accessories he chose building this Florida man as his character.”
Putting life in danger
Bria Vinaite inhabits Moonee’s infantile mother, Halley. She loves her daughter and tries to stay positive. But she is unable to get a job or any kind of child support and slowly crumbles.
To survive, she ends up becoming a sex worker, unwittingly putting her life and her daughter’s life a risk. Vinaite says she drew from real-life women who have fallen by the wayside.
“You have a daughter you have to take care of, a roof to put over her head, food, and then, on top of that, you have to take care of yourself. And I feel like in her situation, her concerns are not even important to her. It’s about Moonie. And it’s just so admirable that she doesn’t give up even till the very end,” Vinaite said.
During one of the film’s screenings, she says she was approached by a European fan, who told her how European countries provide social support and free day care for children of single unemployed mothers. Not here, she says.
“It makes you wonder: What is wrong with the government, for them not to care for such drastic situations that really mold these children, their whole lives? No child should have to experience that,” Vinaite said.
Vinaite says before she was cast for the role she had no idea that there were single mothers living day to day, hand to mouth, one step from homelessness.
“(Filmmaker) Sean (Baker) had flown me out for an audition to the area, drove me around where we would be filming and introduced me to some of the women, who lived in these motels, and I remember I went back to my hotel room and I started crying because I was so shocked,” she said.
Baker found Vinaite, a newcomer, on Instagram. He says he wanted new people who would give authenticity to the story. He definitely succeeds.
Both Vinaite and Brooklynn, who had never acted before, deliver tour de force performances. As the film turns darker, young Brooklynn emotes such pain as Moonee, she might earn an Oscar nomination.
“I cry at the end, too; like on the screen,” Brooklynn said. “I cry. I cried just watching it and I’m like Brooklynn! You have mascara on!”
Moonee’s childlike optimism is tested by the stark reality that an uncaring society will ultimately decide her fate. But ultimately, Moonee finds refuge in her childlike perception of the world.