Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
From left to right: Brooklynn Prince, Sean Baker and Valeria Cotto.
In a short time, The Florida Project
has become the darling of critics and with good reason – the feature film portrays the heartbreaking tale of a single mother and her mischievous 6-year-old daughter struggling to survive in the motels along Kissimmee's dilapidated tourist strip under Disney's shadow. Directed and co-written by Sean Baker (Tangerine
), the movie captures Central Florida's spectacular sunsets, sweltering humidity and surprise downpours authentically amid the family's unforgiving circumstances – similar to the way Moonlight
, another A24 film, harnessed Miami's magic as a background character.
The story of ex-stripper Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), isn't just a story, though. For thousands of families who live on U.S. Highway 192, it's the unadulterated reality
, and the Florida Project
's conception starts with them. In an interview with Orlando Weekly
earlier this month, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch talked about how Bergoch's visits to his mother in Kissimmee inspired the idea of focusing on motel kids. Throughout his travels up and down 192 as an adult and a child, Bergoch says he was, in a way, scouting out iconic locations for a movie – the Orange World, the wizard souvenir shop and the knocked-down Xanadu House. The ubiquitous Orange Bird
plush toys present throughout the film are a nod to Disney's origin, and the movie's name comes from a codename
that Walt Disney had for his theme park in its planning stages during the 1960s and '70s.
"I would come down and visit my mom and borrow her car," Bergoch says. "One day coming back from the parks, I was driving back on 192, and I saw a bunch of kids playing in a parking lot of one of the hotels down there. I thought, 'They don't really look like tourists.'"
Bergoch says once he noticed them, he felt like he saw the kids everywhere – sometimes he glimpsed them playing hide-and-seek at bus stops without ever getting on the buses that unloaded travelers.
"The fact that it was happening in the shadow of the most magical place on earth, the shadow of Cinderella's castle, it kind of tugged at my heart strings," he says. "This wasn't right. What struck me, though, is that they were having just as much fun as I did when I played hide-and-seek. It didn't even matter to the kids because they were still on adventures. That's when I emailed Sean, and I was like, 'We need to find a story here.'"
For Baker, the Florida Project
was his ticket into doing a modern-day "The Little Rascals."
"My whole career, I've been influenced by the Little Rascals," Baker says. "Growing up in New York, on the local television, they played Little Rascal episodes after school. They were wonderful shorts with funny kids, but as I grew older, I started looking at them in a different way because they're set against the Great Depression. A lot of these characters were living in poverty but it focused on the joys of being a kid."
Bergoch and Baker ventured down to Kissimmee where they met with the Rev. Mary Lee Downey, founder of the Community Hope Center
on 192, to get a sense of what it's like for motel families. In the course of the project, they interviewed families who were going through situations that would eventually make it into their film.
"I never wanted to be making fun of the situation or taking it too lightly," Baker says. "I wanted to use comedy to capture audiences and remind them of what they did when they were young. Then when reality starts to kick in of a dangerous environment, people think, 'Oh my god, I was one of the gang, I was one of her friends and suddenly my world is turned upside down.' Our hope as dramatists and filmmakers is that it sparks discussion and brings awareness to this by putting a human face on it."
Baker has his audience's reaction down to an exacting precision. At a recent press screening in Central Florida, reviewers laughed along with Moonee as she and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) took the purple-infused Magic Castle motel by storm. It was giggle-inducing to watch the kids try to explain to Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the overwhelmed father-figure of a motel manager, that they had tried to revive a dead fish by dropping it in the pool or see them beg tourists for spare change to buy ice cream "for their asthma." Among the various overt Disney references, Baker and Bergoch introduced a subtle one when Dafoe ruffles up a strange old man named Charlie Coachman who is presumed a predator after lurking near the children (The Coachman in Pinocchio
lures children away and turns them into donkeys to sell). To pay for their $38-a-night motel room, Halley and Moonee sell wholesale perfumes at more expensive prices to unsuspecting tourists until that scheme falls through, forcing Halley to turn to less savory schemes. The film hooks you in with the slow pace of Halley and Moonee's misdeeds until a final abrupt turn for the worst.
"It's all stacked up against Halley," Baker says. "So basically she's in survival mode and sometimes when you're a rebellious young person in survival mode, you're not going to make the best decisions. But at least it comes from a place of pure love for her child, in my eyes."
Brooklynn Prince, the tiny star of the Florida Project
, describes her character as "maybe a little bit sweet – teensy, crummy sweet. She's bossy and she loves her mom and she loves ice cream." Brooklynn has been praised for her work and several critics have noted her performance in the film is Oscar-worthy
The 7-year-old has of course gone to Disney as a Winter Springs native – but she says she knew little about the homeless families living behind the Orlando theme park until she started the movie.
"I didn't know about the Magic Castle behind Disney," she says. "One time, we were shooting at night and I was like, 'Is that the Disney fireworks?' And they were like, 'Yeah, Disney is right behind us.' I thought that's so cool, but at the same time, I felt really sad for those that don't get to go to Disney."
Bria Vinaite, who was discovered on Instagram by Baker, connected with Brooklynn easily. Part of the film involved working with extras who were living in motels and grappling with similar challenges to their characters.
"They're such amazing women and their kids are amazing," she says. "They really just welcomed us with open arms and they were so helpful and really just wanted to get the portrayal of the story right – this is about their daily life struggles. They can't help the situation they're in and they're still so happy to see you. It makes me realize some stuff is really not important compared to what some people are going through."
Valeria Cotto, who plays Jancey, was discovered by Baker while shopping with her mom, Ivelisse Rijos, in a Target in Kissimmee. He gave her a business card with two chihuahuas on it, which she thought was sketchy, but nonetheless she called the number. The film has been an "out of a dream" life-changing moment for the family, but Rijos and her daughter can't forget about the people they know still living in the motels.
"I feel really bad for people living in those situations – there's nothing to do, it's not fun, but you can aways find a way out of it," Valeria says. Her mom adds, "Once you're in a motel, you really can't get out because it's so expensive. I have a friend who lives in a motel and it's like $200 something a week. It's ridiculous."
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Another challenge for the actors and crew was working through an unbearable Florida summer. Baker says they spent at least $10,000 on water to keep the kids and everyone hydrated under an intense sun.
"I didn't know if I would survive it," the director says. "Our budget for water was astronomical – I thought it was a joke. The steadicam artists were running around with at least 50 to 60 pounds carrying those 35 mm cameras. We had one guy faint."
Baker says even though he's not from the Sunshine State, it remains important to him that Floridians accept this film as theirs.
"Beside bringing awareness, the goal was to make a film in which the representation is accurate and respectful," he says. "I really want Floridians to accept this movie and embrace it and say this is a Florida film. Even though the filmmaker is originally from New York, but he got it right. I'm from New Jersey, which was always considered the armpit of America, so I know what it's like to be always made fun of like Florida, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to show how beautiful Florida can be and how Floridians are beautiful people. And I hope that comes across. I really do."
This is the point where if you haven't seen the movie, you should turn back because there are some spoilers
Just talking about the Florida Project's
ending is enough to elicit tears from some of its cast. The bittersweet finale comes as the Florida Department of Children and Families is set to take away Moonee from Halley because she's been reported for prostitution. Moonee runs away to say goodbye to Jancey at the neighboring hotel, knowing they'll probably never see each other again. Jancey takes Moonee's hand and the film abruptly changes to an iPhone guerrilla-style sequence, a return to the same technique Baker used in Tangerine
. The girls keep running until they make it to the Magic Kingdom and get lost in the crowd. For some, like Bergoch, the ending could have a literal interpretation or it could be a fantasy.
"It's the ultimate leave-it-up-to-you ending, but I would like to think it's exactly what you're seeing," he says. "I think Jancey is a hero, and Jancey is saving the day there with what she thinks is the right move. It's like the classic Wizard of Oz ending – I thought Dorothy really did go to Oz, others say it was all a dream. The truth is I don't know what happens. I just know that Jancey is stepping up and becoming a true friend for her friend in need."
Mela Murder, who plays Scooty's mom Ashley in the film, sees the ending as a fantasy.
"My interpretation is it didn't really happen," she says. "We want to believe they had this magical happy ending but we don't really know. I didn't feel like it was a realistic thing. The way Moonee carries the weight of everything, she's like a little adult and then when she breaks down, you realize she's just a little baby, she's 6 years old."
Both Brooklynn and Vinaite say they cry every time they see the film's ending. The 7-year-old actress reportedly
filmed the final scene where she's breaking down in one take.
"I think it was so sad," Brooklynn says. "I brought my own box of tissues last night to the premiere because I thought 'I'm going to cry.'"
Baker loves the ambiguous ending to his film because it's open to any analysis, though he interprets it as a dream sequence.
"You watched Moonee use her imagination and her sense of wonderment to make the best of her circumstance throughout the whole film," he says. "We were watching her being a child, and at this moment, I think it's time for the audience to go into the head space of a child. I think for me, it is a fantasy moment, it's that moment of escape. Unfortunately, I feel the film does end when she says goodbye and DCF shows up and the cops show up and find her seconds later when she says goodbye to Jancey. But we take the audience on that last hopeful journey the way that the kids have used their imagination throughout the whole film. They finally reach that place that they always wanted to go, but couldn't go – a place inhabited by people that don't even know they exist."
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Chris Bergoch’s comments to make clear his thoughts on the ending of The Florida Project.
The Florida Project is currently playing at Enzian Theater through Oct. 26.
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro