Florida Project, The (United States, 2017)

October 05, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Florida Project, The Poster

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.