Full of a vivid, palpable sense of life, “The Florida Project” is simply unforgettable. While constantly recognizing a hard reality surrounding its young heroine and other characters around her, the movie also finds precious moments of joy and happiness as leisurely prancing along with its young heroine, and I admire how it deftly balances itself between innocence and reality, though I have some reservation on its finale which does not work as well as intended in my inconsequential opinion.
The main background of the movie is an area near the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. In this area, there are a bunch of cheap motels which were originally built for tourists but mainly function instead as the residence of many poor working-class people, and a 6-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in one of these motels. Although being virtually unemployable, Halley tries anything for earning the money for paying her rent, so she frequently leaves her young daughter alone, but Moonee does not mind this much because she always has free time to spend with other kids living in her neighborhood.
In Moonee’s unadulterated viewpoint, the world is a constant source of fun and excitement, and that is exemplified well by one amusing scene where she and her friends attempt a small mischief on the car belonging to a middle-aged lady living in a nearby motel. Even when they get noticed by that lady, that does not stop them from having a fun, and they subsequently befriend one of that lady’s granddaughters who have been taken care of by her due to their mother’s absence.
As closely following Moonee and her friends, the movie serves us with a series of funny and joyous moments generated between them. When they are not doing mischiefs around in the motel, they freely go around here and there in the surrounding area, and they often hang around a local ice cream shop for getting free ice cream. At one point later in the story, Moonee takes her new friend to a ‘safari’, and that amusing scene reminds us of how much kids can be imaginative in their innocent state of mind.
However, the movie also reminds us of how vulnerable and reckless Moonee and her friends are in their small world. There is a subtly creepy scene where they and other kids are approached by a very suspicious old man, and then there is an alarming moment when Moonee and her friends’ seemingly innocent prank in an abandoned condo building leads to a far more serious incident. That incident subsequently affects not only the relationship between Moonee and a boy who is one of her close friends but also the one between Halley and that boy’s mother, who has helped Halley a bit but now comes to distance herself away from Halley because of that incident.
Meanwhile, the situation becomes more difficult for Halley. As getting desperate more than ever, she eventually tries something not allowed in the motel, and that certainly tests the patience of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the generous manager of the motel who has been kind and compassionate to many residences of his motel as much as he can. He does not want to be mean at all, but then there comes a point where he decides that enough is enough, and he adamantly sticks to his decision.
Although it shifts its gear into melodramatic mode around the finale, the movie never sensationalizes or romanticizes its story and characters, and director/editor/co-writer Sean Baker, who previously impressed us with his notable achievement in “Tangerine” (2015), did a commendable job of mixing raw realism with lyrical elements. Mostly shot on 35mm film via handheld camera, the movie is imbued with a considerable amount of verisimilitude, and that makes us more immersed into the mundane world of its marginalized characters. While steadily maintaining the low-key mood of the movie, Baker and his cinematographer Alexis Zabe occasionally give us some poetic moments shining with natural beauty, and I particularly like a brief but lovely moment when Moonie and her friend looks at something in the sky with their innocent wonderment.
Under Baker’s skillful direction, Brooklyn Prince and other young performers in the movie give engaging natural performances. As the lively heart of the film, Prince is terrific while effortlessly exuding her character’s brash innocence, and I enjoyed the easy rapport between her and her fellow young performers. Whenever they interact with each other on the screen, there is always spontaneous energy among them, and we gladly go along with that while constantly amused by them.
In case of the adult performers in the film, they also give solid performances on the fringe of the story. As Moonee’s problematic but defiant mother, newcomer Bria Vinaite holds her place well next to her young co-star, and Willem Dafoe, who will garner an Oscar nomination for this film, is surprisingly effective in his against-the-type role. While he certainly draws our attention with his recognizable face right from the beginning, Dafoe ably dials down his usual intense persona, and the result is one of the best performances in his illustrious career full of many interesting acting turns.
By the way, I must tell you that I felt bothered by the finale of the movie. Although I understand well that it is intended as a sort of make-believe moment to resonate with the preceding melodramatic moment, it felt jarring to me in terms of mood and storytelling, and I guess Baker came to care a little too much about his characters.
Nevertheless, there are many good moments to be cherished in “The Florida Project”, and that is more than enough to compensate for its questionable storytelling choice in the end. It is not entirely flawless, but it is still a vibrant slice of life packed with lots of spirit and care, and I think you should not miss this small gem.