From director-writer Sean Baker comes another unique film from A24 studios in the form of The Florida Project. Set during an Orlando summer, the story centers on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), and their adventures with their friends and each other as they struggle through day-to-day life living in a low-rent Florida motel. The motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) attempts to guide them along but it’s not an easy task as he has his own hands full with other tenants and tourists.
I almost missed seeing this one, as today was the last day it’s scheduled to play in the only theater within reasonable driving distance. So, whew! I’m trying, folks! I’m glad I was able to catch it, though, because it did what I love films to do: surprise me. In fact, it surprised me in more ways than one.
I like to know as little about these lower-budget films as possible before I see them. I was under the assumption that the term “project” in The Florida Project was referring to an undertaking of some sort. Instead, it was referring to a housing project – the motel in this case. So, the film was not as high-spirited as I was expecting.
Generally speaking, the characters in this film in no way have their lives together. Some of them are at least trying. Others are not. We meet Mooney first and within a couple of minutes, without having any larger context, my thoughts turned to, “This is exactly the kind of little girl I hope my nieces don’t turn into.” She’s rude. She’s foul-mouthed. She’s a troublemaker. And she’s a bad influence on the other kids around her. Right away, I knew this was a different film than I thought it was going to be.
A much clearer picture begins to form once we meet Halley, Mooney’s young mother. While others around her are doing their best to work for a living and make ends meet, Halley doesn’t subscribe to that way of life. Technically, she’s applying for work. But there’s an adage you’ve likely heard that says to dress for the job you want. Whether one interprets that literally or metaphorically, Halley does just that. And it’s clear that she has no real interest in nailing down solid employment, instead turning to less respectable (and legal) methods of bringing in money.
However, in the face of all of this, it’s clear that Halley loves her daughter. The problem, however, is that – as with many parents – she’s more interested in being Mooney’s friend than her mother. There is no discipline involved in Halley’s parenting style. Halley loves Mooney but that does not make Halley a good mother. She encourages debauchery from Mooney and never enacts any consequences when Mooney obliges. With the rare exception, here and there, children are a direct result of their upbringing. Seeing this play out on screen is at once both saddening and jolting.
Of the characters with which the audience spends significant time, only Willem Dafoe’s Bobby is truly likable. He’s a good, hard-working man who genuinely cares about the people under his watch, even when they don’t particularly deserve it. Bobby serves as the much-needed audience anchor, providing the viewer someone to relate to and lean on in order to get through the difficult subject matter playing out around them. When Bobby is angry, the viewer is angry. When Bobby is sad, the viewer is sad. When Bobby is heartbroken, the viewer is heartbroken. His inclusion by Baker is a wise move by an inexperienced writer and director.
The three principal cast members – Dafoe, Prince, and Vinaite – are all extraordinary. The characters are each complex and a challenge to play. Dafoe bounces between various emotional highs and lows with ease and dexterity, often displaying a mix of various feelings at the same time. This is Vinaite’s first film, but one would never know it. She’s at once loathsome and endearing. She impresses and will hopefully be making more film appearances in the future.
And young Brooklynn Prince is an absurdly brilliant actor, providing the most moving performance in the entire film. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some award nominations coming her way for this role. If not, then it’s only a matter of time, should she continue on this career path. With so many talented child actors in the world (Prince, the casts of It and Stranger Things, etc.), I can’t help but wonder – knowing that, statistically speaking, the percentage of strong child actors should remain consistent over the years – how George Lucas ended up casting Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker.
All of these elements combine to build towards a powerful climax. The film, as a whole, doesn’t contain a traditional narrative. There is no hook – no obvious final looming conflict resolution to be sought. Instead, The Florida Project is a deep character study and an inspection of an oft-overlooked segment of the American population. It’s also an exercise in providing insight into how things can go wrong for someone so early in their life, at no fault of their own, that there is virtually nothing they can do to overcome the resulting Butterfly Effect without some help from the outside. This movie is not fun. It’s not “enjoyable” from most people’s perspective. But it’s a poignant reminder that change comes from all of us. And it starts with protecting the children.
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