A few miles from Disney World exists another world entirely. There are castles, but they are less-than-regal housing for a poor community. There are little princesses, but they’re hidden behind filthy rooms, soda cans, and upset parents. There are heroes and villains, but the lines can blur at times. The parents are all in messy situations, struggling to do the right things when finance and feelings limit their options. The children, however, can only see the fun side of their lives, unknowingly hanging on to their last threads of innocence before they are ripped away. All of this combines to make The Florida Project one of the most engrossing, sweet, sad, and influential films of the year.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is our little protagonist, who lives at the Magic Castle motel with her prostitute mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee doesn’t know much about what her mom does and is more knowledgeable about her friends from neighboring motels in similar situations. She rushes over to another motel with her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) to spit on a car; they have no major issue with the car owner, nor do they have some aggression they’re trying to work out with this activity. They’re just kids who like spitting, enacting one of their many summer activities. Even when forced to clean up the car, the kids still approach this task with smiles and laughter.
Soon, they gain another kid ally, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Moonee and Scooty show her the ropes as far as fun stuff to do around their neighborhood: fast food, gift shops, abandoned homes, and wildlife. They point out the ice-cream store where they get free ice cream by cheerfully asking for money from tourists. They venture into old condos to break windows and fantasize about their future homes. They’re not thinking about where their next meal is coming from, where they’ll live next, or what will happen to their parents.
What their parents are doing, meanwhile, is nowhere near as cheerful or comfortable. Halley can’t find a proper job, lacking the patience and skills to be hired, and resorts to the more dangerous work of selling wholesale items around a touristy hotel and hawking Disney World wristbands she swipes from her sexual clients. Her sense of morality is so detached from the wider world that she easily gets into fights and blows any little money she has on extravagances for her daughter. Like Moonee, Halley lives in the moment, and most of the moments are wrong when they’re not filled with money and drugs. The only thing holding her back from being the most inhuman of monsters is her ability to have fun with her daughter and shield her from most of the world’s ugliness.
Striving to be a mediator is the robust and sensitive motel manager Bobby, expertly played by Willem Dafoe in his most excellent role in years. He tries to hold the fort as best as he can on his own, putting fresh coats of paint on the walls and tossing out mattresses when they’re infested with bedbugs. Faced with dirty and destructive clients, he is fighting an uphill battle. Halley proves to be the most terrible resident to keep, given her frequent outbursts and run-ins with the law. He tries to accommodate her and Moonee because he doesn’t want to toss the kid out into the cold, but he receives no thanks from either of them—only the quiet satisfaction that Moonee can still be a kid for the time being, however long that may be. In a perfect world, he’d be Moonee’s father, but those are dreams too sad to dwell on for a man as busy and concerned as Bobby.
There’s a building sadness with the cute relationship between Jancey and Moonee that seems to develop privately, away from the scummier world of adults. They have a genuine appeal, with mannerisms so accurate to real-life little girls that I wondered whether or not writer-director Sean Baker even wrote exact lines for them. The tears progressively increase because we know this won’t last. The kids live in a world where kids come and go from the motel with little they can do about it. Take the scene in which one of their friends moves away to New Orleans. There isn’t enough room in the car for his toys, and his dad makes him give all of them away to his former friends. The kids don’t give heartfelt goodbyes, only small waves before they run off to play with all their new toys. Jancey and Moonee weren’t too attached to this friend, but what if it happened to them? We don’t want to think about it, and neither do they, but it’s a significant possibility.
The Florida Project is told in episodic segments, following Moonee, Halley, and Bobby in their day-to-day activities. The climate can be felt in small scenes during which nothing much happens. Moonee and Scooty share an ice cream inside the motel lobby, only for it to drip on the floor, leading Bobby to force them outside. The kids have a gargling contest. We see just enough of Halley’s child-free activities to understand her mindset, dancing in the streets for some cash and drinking beers in the motel pool with her friends. Bobby is perhaps the most compelling in his scenes, his most potent being when he confronts a potential child predator. He doesn’t just kick this creep out once he finds him asking the names of all the children on the playground—Bobby plays along with the strangers excuse that he’s only coming to the motel for soda just long enough to get the man’s name, then runs him off the property.
The movie is tightly edited, cobbling together the most beautiful and ugly moments of living just outside the Happiest Place on Earth. For this reason, the ending may leave some ambivalent about how everything leaves off. Emotionally, however, it ends on the right note, closing with the most tear-worthy moment I’ll probably see all year.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a parent and can’t stand to see kids emotionally damaged, but Brooklynn Prince’s tears are so real that my heart broke. That may not sound like the most ringing endorsement, but I rarely cry at the movies, even those built for extracting liquid from the eyes. I mentioned in my review of another soft drama this month that it worked hard enough to be worthy of being somber. This film doesn’t have to work for anything. Everything on-screen feels human, real, and heartbreaking without the need for poetic dialogue or swelling music. The Florida Project is a film that transcends what it appears to be about. To simply call it a coming-of-age story or a dramatic lens on needy families doesn’t even begin to describe its brilliance. It is a magical film of a completely different sort of magic than the artificial variety that Disney sells at its gift shop.