Sean Baker’s The Florida Project portrays a slice of American life with characters who struggle mightily to get a piece of the pie. There’s kids and bright colors in a Disney setting that feels worlds away from the Magic Kingdom and short distance away from it that it is.
The film centers on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), who lives with mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) at a cheap hotel in close proximity to Mickey’s tourist attraction. The hotel is painted in gaudy palettes maintained by the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a kind and exasperated man who keeps a constant eye out for the kids who fill the premises. Halley is a former stripper constantly struggling to pay rent and make ends meet. Her friends at the hotel and their children are in similar situations. The never ending trials of the adults are seen, but mostly through the eyes of Moonee and friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).
We know there’s a lot of sad and desperate actions that allow Halley to plunk down the rent. Yet Moonee is still of the age where she doesn’t completely notice it or begin to comprehend it. The Florida Project presents her small world through her eyes. Each day, she sees parents and their kids staying at close by luxury hotels who are there to vacation and take in the wonder of what’s behind Disney’s gates. Her situation prevents her from entering them.
The screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch is less concerned with plot and more with tagging along with the youngsters. They seem real and not like movie kids who are all knowing and ahead of the adults. They get in trouble. They say mean things. And they’re bored and aimless much of the time while their elders tend to their struggles. They’re also played by genuinely impressive actors, especially Prince. First timer Vinaite creates quite a character in Halley, whose rough edges are not glossed over. And Dafoe has touching and forceful moments as witness to the motel’s daily drama.
We don’t see the people explored in The Florida Project onscreen often. The inhabitants of the Magic Castle motel don’t live in flyover territory. Far from it. They do live in territory that is driven by all day and night and mostly ignored. There’s enough heart and realism displayed here to make the two hours spent there worth it.
*** (out of four)