Don’t trust strangers. Stay close to home. Behave. These are all the rules the kids lived by growing up, including myself. We lived our lives day-to-day with no cares in the world, but still followed basic guidelines laid out by our parents and guardians. The Florida Project is a look at how much rules matter when growing up — how kids might live carefree, but guidance is more crucial than ever at a young age. Set in Orlando, Florida, on the fringe of American society and under the socioeconomic climate of a motel skirting the border between the Walt Disney World Resort and those that can only dream of visiting, Sean Baker has crafted a timely American fairytale that captures the real-life stakes of the less fortunate.
Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a young mother to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and is struggling on a daily basis to keep a roof over their heads at the Magic Castle, a purple motel that plays host to many of the impoverished American citizens that have fallen through the cracks of society. They make their life their own and do what they can to survive, while still raising their families. Halley is almost always late on her rent (which is $35 a night), while Moonee spends her days with friends from Magic Castle and the nearby motel, Futurelands. These fantasy-themed motels serve as the backdrop to Moonee and her friends’ fantastical adventures, as well as a reminder of what happens when rules aren’t there to keep these adventures grounded in reality.
The Florida Project often moves between Kids Say the Darndest Things to the uncomfortable realities of the homes these kids are brought up in, with the only real notion of guidance coming from Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of the Magic Castle. He runs this community and seems to love doing so, with much of his character being portrayed by his interactions with the kids and their parents, those who call The Magic Castle “home.” His guests abuse him but love him, and he provides the same kind of hard love with recognition that he has the chance to make a difference in these kids’ lives and help the parents find some sort of safety net in his motel.
Dafoe’s performance is incredible, but it’s rivalled by an equally-incredible Brooklynn Prince, who is often given the best lines and delivers them with a charisma and conviction that reminds me of a more aggressive version of Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Moonee swears, has a constant attitude problem, and is always scheming her way out of legitimately consequential scenarios. Her performance truly plays like a younger version of Vinaite’s Halley, who does much of the same, but substituting scheming with yelling in denial to get out of situations. Halley is volatile and reckless, which Vinaite captures with such stunning veracity that she makes every scene difficult to watch, because you can see the staggering influence it has on Moonee. But you can also see Vinaite acting much like a child herself, which provides a glimpse into what may be Moonee’s future with Halley behind the wheel.
At its most basic, a lot of The Florida Project feels like a fly-on-the-wall look at a girl growing up in a motel. Most scenes are through Moonee’s perspective, but occasionally we get a look at Bobby as he converses with some of the other residents of The Magic Castle, or Halley as she hangs out with her one friend, and is exclusively focused on partying. Even the surrounding buildings give a glimpse of life in this area of Florida, with gun shops and run-down housing projects haunting the highways right next to them. You see other people’s lives throughout, but Moonee carries the movie and the impact of her experiences. There’s a slight “kids will be kids” mentality when going into The Florida Project but it’s difficult to not come out recognizing the harsh realities of her situation, and how they have greatly affected her, even if she still can maintain a positive outlook on life.
That’s why The Florida Project shines bright; even through all the hardships that happen, Moonee still can walk out with a positive attitude. By the time the credits rolled, the smile on my face was from ear-to-ear, and all I wanted was to watch the film again. It’s unflinching at times, especially when it starts ratcheting up the tension with Halley’s parenting techniques. Everything works in part because it’s just a slice of life, one that has positive and negative perspectives to look at. Baker triumphs with a film that feels just as fun as Tangerine (his last film), but holds even more weight to it — a weight that anchors and secures it as one of the best films of this year.
- Christopher Cross