When you’re a kid, things that seem routine or mundane later through adult eyes are much larger and intriguing. This is the core of The Florida Project’s appeal, a new film by Sean Baker that is one of the most nuanced portrayals of life in America I’ve seen in recent movies lately. It has a very unconventional, but jarringly realistic narrative and sense of pacing, the movie literally sneaks up on you and catches you by surprise.
At first I didn’t quite know what to make of it, even though I was enjoying the story, but the drama kept building to a head and it never stopped being compelling. The characters are funny, colorful and at times foolish, all while coming off incredibly believable.
Baker casts his eye on marginalized people in a manner that never feels condescending, and the optimistic tone of this film is refreshing in that sense. The plot is essentially the summer vacation of a six-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), having fun with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and the new girl Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
Moonee is eager to hit it off with Jancey right away, wrangling her into activities like spit-bombing cars off balconies and shutting down the power of the Magic Castle motel, where she lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). While their parents and the other adults go about fretting in their daily routine, the kids rule over a wide-spanning kingdom of their creation.
Throughout the film, Halley appears almost as childlike as Moonee now and then. Unable to make an honest living, she and her daughter resort to soliciting and street hustling to keep with with their payments to Bobby (William Dafoe), the Magic Castle’s manager. Dafoe plays an excellent straight man to Vinaite, as he reluctantly extends his patience and kindness towards the struggling mother.
He’s gruff but never cruel, and it’s always evident how protective and caring he is about his clients, the kids in particular. A scene where he guides a predatory stranger away from the playground is remarkably tense and well-directed- as much as Moonee and her friends get on his nerves, he’ll always go to bat for them.
I found it remarkable how this film was able to balance out characters who often made bad decisions, but still remained sympathetic and endearing in spite of that. Vinaite’s debut performance as Halley is a big help in this regard, at times funny and endearing, but also raw and tragic at points. As a viewe, it’s easy to become frustrated with her choices, but Baker makes it clear she’s under dire circumstances without excusing her actions.
Her love and devotion to her daughter are very heartwarming, coming off more like a fun big sister. Brooklynn Prince is an energetic and at times unexpectedly witty ball of charisma as Moonee, unabashedly a troublemaker (with quite the potty mouth), but still sweet and with great affection towards her friends and family.
With a few exceptions, the story is told from her perspective, so the Magic Castle doesn’t look like a run-down motel so much as it does a vast land of adventure and imagination. Alexis Zabe’s stunning cinematography contributes a lot here, with bright neons and lush greens. Even the cheap local stores with garish exteriors appear more impressive and colorful than I was expecting. Even without the budget of a major studio, this movie always looks like you’re entering a brand new world.
One notably memorable scene for me was the climax. In the hands of a lesser director it could have come off as maudlin or sappy, but because these characters feel so rooted in reality, everything hits hard.
On top of the incredible and stark acting (Prince, in particular, is gut-wrenching), it’s got a disarming amount of heart that makes the slow burn pacing worthwhile, and also calls back on an interesting analogy that’s hinted at throughout the story. Dafoe’s performance here as well is notably and heartbreakingly great in its subtlety, and Prince’s Moonee is determined to experience one more journey.
It’s appropriate that Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” is featured in The Florida Project, because it’s a movie that definitely celebrates the beauty of everyday life, but without sugarcoating the harsh realities of modern-day poverty in this country.
This is a movie that easily could have felt exploitative, but it manages to walk a fine line between wonder, innocence and ugly truths while showcasing some impressive worldbuilding and great naturalistic performances along the way. Easily recommended, I personally feel this is one of the most creative and engaging dramas of the year.