Written by: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera
Even when parents may believe children do not learn and internalize the behavior they witness, time after time it shows up even in the subtlest ways. From spoken words to physical actions, the act of raising the child signifies the reality of every moment being one where they learn. The Florida Project presents a case of this reality in a place often ignored.
Situated at the Magic Castle Motel near Disney World, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) spends her days running around with her friends, causing mischief, and getting chastised by the manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). With a mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggling to care for her financially, they try to get through each day the best they can.
Judging how other parents care for their child never feels fair because each situation comes with its own set of circumstances that must be accounted for. It’s easy to be a great parent when all essential and wants can be accounted for. Halley finds herself in the position of living in a motel, unable to find work, and relying on public assistance. Not an ideal circumstance to raise a child seeing as no kitchen means purchasing food out, which most likely will not be the healthiest option. A concern substantiated very quickly when Halley has Moonee get food from her friend, Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at a breakfast eatery. Watching the way Moonee interacts with others demonstrates exactly where she got this behavior from, but it becomes difficult to completely disregard Halley as a bad mother. She undoubtedly loves her daughter and ensures she feels loved whenever given the opportunity. The complexity of Halley causes complications in trying to nail down each character in this story, which serves as the very intention of the film, and it gets executed tremendously well.
As much focus as the earlier paragraphs focused on Halley, this story unquestionably centers on the children and their experience in this environment. It begins with Moonee and her friends running around and eventually deciding to see who can spit the farthest on a car. Gross, yes, but the opening scene makes two things clear: this film absolutely nails what it’s like to get into child mischief but also the camera stays on the children’s level thus ensuring we take everything from their perspective. It shows how big the adults are around them and how much of an influence it has on these youths. There are certain scenes where the kids aren’t in the frame because they’re asleep, but whenever Moonee appears on-screen she becomes the center of attention.
Each day it appears Moonee gathers her friends and they go through a laundry list of items to simply keep themselves entertained. The way she has the freedom to essentially go wherever she wants with her friends would certainly be concerning to several parents but it allows the presentation of the disparity in the way kids act in front of adults and other kids to be prominent in the story. As kids, they do things kids like to do, which includes gathering change in order to get ice cream. If anything, it shows their resourcefulness and how much they love ice cream where they’re willing to share it amongst each other. While the sharing of the ice cream cone as a practice may make hypochondriacs faint, it demonstrates the pure sweetness contained in every child where they would share a food item that never should.
With the story taking place in an Orlando motel easily mistaken in title for Magic Kingdom, also not too far away, plays an integral part of what makes this story even more devastating. With the happiest place on Earth right around the corner, the families in this situation find themselves in the opposite position. It pushes some of the individuals to resort to drastic measures in order to simply survive. In those moments, it just gets difficult to watch and certainly does not make a great case to visit Florida in complete honesty. All of this occurs right under the shadow of Disney World, which has been branded as a paradise for children, but without the resources, these kids make the most of it.
The performances in this feature reach a staggeringly great level, especially from Brooklynn Prince. She has to carry so many of the scenes and the extent to how she evokes the different emotions going through this young girl could rival even seasoned actors. Prince beautifully displays the emotional highs of getting something as simple as extra syrup and the pains of figuring out the reality of her situation. A wonderful combination of screenplay and actor here makes this character feel like a true child, warts and all, serving as a testament to the quality.
Working under the shadow of Prince are the two main adults, Bria Vinaite as Halley and Willem Dafoe as the manager, Bobby. Vinaite takes on this tricky role, which could easily fall into being horrendously obnoxious but she manages to find the raw humanity driving this character. Even with Halley’s misguided intentions and overall attitude, Vinaite demonstrates how much she loves her child. She may not be the best person to raise her but it still represents a fierce love only a mother can provide. Willem Dafoe, on the other hand, brings a less showy performance but one filled with plenty of heart. It shows just how much he puts up with as the manager of this motel and where many would be exploitative, Bobby proves there are people who care for others. Bobby warms the heart on several occasions, but especially when he gives people chances to straighten up and specifically in the way he interacts with the children. Serving as the adult in every situation lays plenty on his shoulders and Dafoe precisely brings forth this very tired but caring demeanor.
There’s never a dull moment when watching a Sean Baker film who made waves with his iPhone-shot Tangerine. With The Florida Project, he set his sights on a different population and one that goes mostly ignored as well. His camerawork becomes integral to how he tells this story and how he simply allows the actors to perform and captivate. His style remains evident and it proves to be a strong collaboration with the talent surrounding him to tell this story.
When going to Magic Kingdom, make sure you select the right option on the GPS, because you might accidentally end up at the Magic Castle Motel, which one couple hilarious did within this film. You’ll see vast differences in appearances and the patrons, but the one thing they have in common is kids will find a way to make fun. It may not be the rides and attractions but rather whatever they can find in order to entertain themselves. Truly the magic of being a child and a sentiment The Florida Project nails.