A small film that feels endlessly big.
The more I think about The Florida Project, the more its images begin to stand out for me. Take for instance, one of its more poetic sequences, when a little girl and her two best friends walk aimlessly through a batch of abandoned, pastel-colored condos. The sweltering Florida heat wears them down, but never before they’re done playing. All that divides them from Disney World, the supposed “Happiest Place On Earth,” is a ring of swamp land.
Much like writer and director Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, which got notice for being shot entirely on an iPhone, The Florida Project is about the people living in the in-between. Sitting continuously on the brink of someplace much better than they’re in right now, but also one much worse. It’s about a group of people, barely making ends meet, living in a beat-up purple motel called The Magic Castle, where sometimes Disney tourists accidentally make reservations. To most adults, the place looks and feels like one that you’d try to avoid at all costs, but to the kids living there – it’s no different or less magical than anywhere else in the world.
The greatest success of The Florida Project is how well Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, manage to firmly plant you in the perspective of its young characters, led by Brooklynn Prince’s fierce and rebellious Moonee. Introduced while playing under one of her hotel home’s many staircases, Moonee spends all her summer days playing with her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and eventually, another addition to their duo in Valeria Cotto’s Jancey, a girl around the same age as them living in another neighboring hotel.
Moonee and her posse spend a majority of their days wandering around Florida, through some of the swamp lands, the many parking lots, and finishing their days by sharing an ice cream cone between the three of them. Occasionally, though, they bring their troubles back home to The Magic Castle, where Willem Dafoe’s Bobby manages the building like a parent trying to keep their sick child alive. His relationships with the tenants, and specifically kids like Moonee and Scooty, is caring and protective. He tries his best to keep them in line, while always focused on making sure he’s able to keep the Castle open.
In an uncharacteristically soft turn, Dafoe gives one of the best performances of his entire career here. He brings Bobby to life as a man with a big heart, and who chooses to show it through quiet gestures of goodwill. Dafoe is deserving of all the praise he’s received for The Florida Project up until this point, and will likely, stay in most viewers’ minds for weeks after they venture to the theatre to see it.
As he also did with Tangerine, Baker has chosen to populate The Florida Project with an ensemble of mostly unknown actors, all of whom give such natural and compelling performances that it’s easy to forget they’re playing characters at all. Brooklynn Prince shines the most as Moonee, whose joy and vibrancy is infectious to even the most oblivious and selfish of those around her. There are several times, especially in the second half of the film, where Baker chooses to have just Prince’s face take up the entire screen – for what seem like minutes at a time – and it’s not rare for those moments to tug at your heartstrings in often sudden and unexpected ways.
Thanks to its plot and characters – most of whom are prone to making increasingly bad decisions as time goes on – The Florida Project will not be an easy movie for most people to fall in love with. Its subject matter is dark and intense in a very real way, no matter how much the film’s childlike perspective manages to dull some of its grimier moments. But for those ready to give themselves over to this story and Baker’s style, it offers rewards greater than what most films so far this year have.