Set on a stretch of highway just outside the imagined utopia of Disney World, The Florida Project follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince in a stunning breakout turn) and her rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, another major discovery) over the course of a single summer. The two live week to week at "The Magic Castle," a budget motel managed by Bobby (a career-best Willem Dafoe), whose stern exterior hides a deep reservoir of kindness and compassion. Despite her harsh surroundings, the precocious and ebullient Moonee has no trouble making each day a celebration of life, her endless afternoons overflowing with mischief and grand adventure as she and her ragtag playmates - including Jancey, a new arrival to the area who quickly becomes Moonee's best friend - fearlessly explore the utterly unique world into which they've been thrown. Unbeknownst to Moonee, however, her delicate fantasy is supported by the toil and sacrifice of Halley, who is forced to explore increasingly dangerous possibilities in order to provide for her daughter.
Willem Dafoe | Brooklynn Prince | Valeria Cotto | Bria Vinaite | Christopher Rivera
Despite a seemingly straightforward slice-of-life storyline, The Florida Project achieves something rare and magical: presenting existence from the perspective of a young child while, at the same time, providing enough "clues" that viewers are able to decipher what's really going on. Children often don't see the world the same way adults do and writer/director Sean Baker (Tangerine) has captured this divide without resorting to overt melodrama or sensationalism. The Florida Project feels genuine from start to finish and Baker doesn't wander onto a Hollywood-inspired detour despite many opportunities.
The cast is mostly barren of "name" actors. The only one of note, Willem Dafoe, fills a supporting role. He appears in many scenes and is a strong background presence but the movie isn't about his character, Bobby, the manager of the purple-pastel motel The Magic Castle. Aside from Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones, who has a small role as Bobby's son, the rest of the actors are newcomers. They includes the three primary children - Brooklynn Prince, who plays central character Moonee; Valeria Cotto (Jancey); and Christopher Rivera (Scooty) - and two adults - Bria Vinaite (Halley, Moonee's mother) and Mela Murder (Ashley, Scooty's mother). Baker's ability to direct performances is evident here. Vinaite and Murder give strong, unforced portrayals and the children, especially standout Prince, are unaffected. During a climactic moment, Prince emotes so naturally that the moment is heartbreaking.
The movie transpires in Kissimmee, Florida, in the shadow of Walt Disney World, where a seemingly endless array of garish extended-stay motels provide a cheap alternative to the high-end luxury of The Polynesian Resort, The Contemporary Resort, and The Grand Floridian. In this low-rent fairytale land of $35/night, there are as many long-term residents as there are weeklong visitors. Moonee, a six-year old girl, spends her endless summer days running around the grounds with her friends, Scooty and Jancey. They do the kinds of things most kids do but their "innocent" mischief occasionally takes dark turns. They have little or no adult supervision. Scooty's mother works full-time as a waitress (the kids sometimes show up at the diner's backdoor for free food) and Halley, Moonee's mother, has little more stability and emotional maturity than her daughter. The only one who seems to keep an eye on the kids is Bobby, and that's as much to keep them from damaging the motel as to protect them from creeps and predators.
Despite its low-key narrative, The Florida Project builds to a climax. From the beginning, as we understand the children's lives, there's a sense of inevitability that this is coming. The story is comprised of episodes and incidents and is interested in the smallest details like how Halley and Moonee have to occasionally relocate for 24 hours to avoid being considered permanent residents/squatters (which give them certain legal rights the motel's ownership doesn't want to deal with). The sultry Florida weather plays an integral part, with its temperamental tropical downpours, rainbows, and glorious sunsets.
90% of the movie is presented from Moonee's perspective, which gives a slant to many activities. Hurtful pranks are presented as harmless ways to relieve boredom. Dangers that might give adults pause are little more than distractions. Using shot selection and focusing on the young performers, Baker draws the viewer into this world and, when we begin to understand the implications of what's really going on, we understand the fullness of the tragedy. As much as Halley loves Moonee, she is as unfit a parent as can be. Not only is she incapable of keeping her daughter safe but her recklessness has the potential to lead to something from which neither could recover. The film's ending is crafted in such a way that the emotional impact (from Monee's perspective) is at odds with the logical, rational implications (as seen from a neutral vantage point).
In some ways, The Florida Project reminded me of Fish Tank. Narratively, the films are much different but their rhythms are similar. Both are about young people trying to find a path forward in a lower-class situation where the immediacy of the moment trumps long-term considerations. Moonee is wise beyond her years yet, like the (older) protagonist in Fish Tank, her risky behavior puts her future in question. Baker is canny enough to make the viewer aware of all the dangers surrounding Moonee while simultaneously transforming these things (like speeding cars on a road) into background noise for the children.
The Florida Project is the kind of small, insightful, and fascinating film that will be beloved by art house audiences (it is not by any stretch a mainstream production) and may generate some Oscar buzz. The actors - Prince in particular - are deserving of at least consideration as are some of the technical aspects that are so crucial to the state of mind Baker creates in his audience. Not a coming-of-age story but one about the loss of innocence, this is one of the most honest films about young childhood to reach theaters in a several years.