by Alan Yudman
For a movie set in the shadows of Disney World, THE FLORIDA PROJECT owes nothing to any Magic Kingdom. Sean Baker (TANGERINE) has figured out a way to tell a story of people living on the margins. The live near Disney, but that is close as they will ever get to the tourist attraction. Close enough to see, but not be part of the fantasy.
The adults act like children and even though the kids act like children, they are forced to care for themselves like the are adults. These are people left out by the rest of society. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) are forced to live in a motel located just down the street from Disney World. They have no place else to go. Halley is barely an adult herself and earns what little money she has selling perfume, or hustling stolen park wristbands or just simply hustling. It is a miserable life. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the motel manager who is also sort of a de-facto babysitter. He doesn’t want the job, but someone has to keep an eye out for the kids who run around the motel and neighboring businesses with abandon.
The kids start out uber annoying. I kept thinking to myself, “why can’t anyone control them”? But then as things move along, you realize that no one can control them. There is no one to control them. They all are from single parent homes. The parents are working. It’s summer so they have no school to go to. No family to stay with. They would have to scramble and climb just to reach the top of the crack they fell through in society. It is sad and pathetic and gut wrenching. You wait for someone to come to help. But there is no help coming. Only county child welfare officials who are doing whatever they can, but they come off as the bad guys, or the worse guys, because there is no good guy here. Only Bobby seems to be trying to do the right thing, but even his efforts are minuscule in the grand scheme of things.
So you must be wondering by now, why should I watch this pathetic story. Because it is magnificently executed. You hope against hope that things will get better. You root for something good to happen. Baker draws you into this world he’s created and makes you care about these broken people. Brooklynn Prince is amazing. I mean, she is acting like a 6-year-old. How Baker corralled that into such a wonderfully touching performance is a feat to behold. Bria Vinaite is an Instagram star. So how did she land this? I don’t know, but she is fabulous. You feel how much she cares for her daughter, but also how lost she is in the world. Dafoe’s nomination for Supporting Actor is richly deserved. Usually he plays the villain or some kind of oddball psycho. Here he plays the nice guy, totally against type and he is wonderful.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a tough movie. It is full of brightly colored buildings and dimly colored people. It is a film i keep thinking about. Thinking about how people could live like this because it is so outside my experience. And great art should make you consider worlds you are not familiar with. It should make you reckon with it. And that’s what makes THE FLORIDA PROJECT such a great film.