In 2017 the best picture award was given to a low-budget independent film set in South Florida. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, was the story of the awkward evolution of a gay man who begins his life as the poor son of a drug addict mother living in the homophobic projects of the Miami metro area.
Perhaps the Academy thought that one film about marginal Floridians was enough for our time and passed over an equally if not more compelling portrait of the life of the underclass: Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Perhaps the members also thought that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri satisfied an unspoken quota of film portraits of the Other America.
It’s a shame that The Florida Project was not included. It’s a fine character study of the often valiant attempts by ordinary people to stay ahead of the poverty curve. It captures the world that attracted short story writer Raymond Carver whose approach to subject matter has been called “K Mart Realism.” This is the Florida far removed from the affluent of Marco Island (or Mar-a-Lago if you prefer), the hedonists of South Beach, and the wholesome American families ritualistically visiting Disneyland, just a few miles from the scene of most of the action, the Florida of strip mall pawn shops, gun stores, and alligator farms.
The film focuses on Halley, a dysfunctional young woman who struggles to keep up with the $38 dollar a night bill for the Magic Castle, the painted pink motel that serves as her most recent refuge. Baker is uninterested in how she came to this point; his energies are focused on Halley’s survival by keeping the cash coming selling wholesale perfume to patrons of tonier motels down the street and by turning a trick or two under the radar of the police. She keeps her daughter Mooney fed through an alliance with a similarly situated woman who works at a local greasy spoon and smuggles food out the back door and into the arms of her own son, Scootey, Mooney’s boon companion and partner in mischief.
She is feral about her self-preservation. She has a well-developed inventory of gestures and verbal weapons to keep others at bay. Denied a room in a better motel, she dumps a can of soda on the lobby floor and slaps her Kotex pad against the plate glass window. Faced with the challenge of feeding her hungry daughter, she encourages her daughter to order anything and everything off the breakfast menu, then walks off without paying the bill. She has a mighty scream as load as the roar of the helicopter that frequently and ominously lands in a field across the highway. She’s not an easy character to like and we can well imagine her final demise in the near future. Yet she partially redeems herself when she throws a birthday party in an open field, all timed to correspond to the evening fireworks going off in the distant Disneyland.
While the tatted up Halley (Bria Vinaite) is riveting as the woman keeping the wolf at the door, it is her daughter Mooney (Brooklyn Prince) who holds the screen and in whose future we are most compellingly interested. Mooney, Scooty and Jancey (another motel child) often engage in innocent pranks, puckishly making arm farts and putting a dead fish in the motel pool in the hopes of reviving it. She lives a free-range childhood, largely because of her mother’s neglect, and she is wise in the ways of the world. She knows the particular troubles of many of the residents of The Magic Castle. And she has learned the hustle from her mother, coaxing patrons of an ice cream joint to pay for a cone for her and her companions and knowing how and when to charm the manager, skillfully played by Willem Dafoe who blends frosty discipline with reluctant compassion. (It’s Dafoe who gets the only Academy Award nomination – in the Supporting Actor category.)
There’s no Dickensian sentimentality in this portrait of a child of poverty nor is the life of mother and daughter presented with a sense of outrage and an appeal for reform. When the social work authorities intervene, we may find ourselves hoping that this very imperfect family can somehow be kept together. We might also hope that the resilience of Halley and the rambunctious, joyful energy of Mooney will enable them to live more than just another day, even though we know that their happiness is as ephemeral as the rainbow that graces the early evening Florida sky.