Synopsis: Set over one summer, the film follows precocious 6-year-old Moonee as she courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Disney World.
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Jim R. Coleman
Director: Sean Baker
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: In 2015 director Sean Baker made quite a splash on the indie circuit with Tangerine, a film about a trans woman working the streets to survive in California on Christmas Eve. The film was notable not only in the urgency of its performances but for it being filmed entirely on an iPhone. I’ve regrettably not seen Tangerine yet but I did catch Baker’s follow-up which switches coasts to Florida for a rough, raw look at children and adults that reside in a Disney-adjacent motel. It’s title, The Florida Project, has a triple meaning but its message is crystal clear.
Taking place over the summer months when children roam free around the The Magic Castle Motel, The Florida Project plays like a series of vignettes that don’t have the clearest through line. There are several stories fighting for the spotlight here and while some characters overlap or disappear completely, our main focus is on six year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), and Bobby (Willem Dafoe, The Fault in Our Stars) the manager of the motel. Moonee runs around with several other children while Halley only makes the most basic attempt to keep their heads above water. Halley is feisty and averse to authority and it looks like Moonee is heading down that same path. Bobby has to watch out not only for the up-keep of the motel but for it’s denizens that run afoul of each other and the law at regular intervals (Bobby’s argument with a washed-up stripper intent on tanning topless is a riot).
As the months go by we never learn too much about Moonee and Halley’s backstory because the film wants to stay in the moment like its main characters. Bobby has some sort of paternal fondness for both girls, perhaps to make up for some suggested failings with his own child (Caleb Landry Jones, Contraband) that are only hinted at. When Halley’s income dries up she embarks in increasingly dangerous behavior that leads the film to its emotional, impactful conclusion.
I’m going to be honest, The Florida Project isn’t for everyone and right up until the end I wasn’t even sure it was for me either. The acting (I use that term very lightly) is amateur at best, with Baker plucking most of the cast out of obscurity (leading lady Vinaite was recruited from Instagram) and the pacing grows repetitive at nearly two hours in length. Yet there is so much life on display here, so much devil-may-care attitude from those on screen and that helps to keep these characters alive long after the credits roll.
Dafoe’s performance is pretty remarkable too, largely because as the only truly experienced actor in the main mix he never makes it feel like he’s working with first-timers. Often in these situations you can easily pick out the newbies but Dafoe keeps those dividers down, instilling even more realism to an already authentic-feeling movie-going experience. Everyone else on screen is going on pure instinct and Dafoe meets them where they are to blend right in.
While overall I would suggest that you get The Florida Project on your list, I caution again that it’s not an easy film to take. The ending especially is hard to sit through yet the final minutes are a surprisingly effective gut-punch I just wasn’t expecting in the slightest. Baker already had good credit as an independent filmmaker and he’s captured lightening in a bottle again with The Florida Project.