We’re not crying, you’re crying.
Orlando isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be, as depicted in The Florida Project. Yes, it’s an incredibly popular tourist destination and, of course, it’s home to the wondrous and fantastical Disney World. But there’s also a lot more to the city lying just outside these magical walls.
This is the area where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl, finds herself living. She does not live in a big, rich castle like all the Disney princesses do. She, instead, lives in the Magic Castle — a broken down motel in the outskirts of Orlando that’s home to those on the verge of homelessness.
Moonee lives there with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley doesn’t have a steady job, per-say, but somehow always finds a way to get rent to Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager.
Halley also isn’t exactly what one might consider a well-fit mother. While she cares for Moonee — her love evident in a handful of scenes — she can also tend to be reckless and irresponsible at times. She allows Moonee to wander the city over the course of the summer without supervision, while she stays in the room and watches TV.
Moonee, however, doesn’t mind. This is the only life that she’s ever known, and she’s more than happy causing mischief with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
Yet, the illusion can’t last forever. While Moonee may not mind (or better yet, fully understand) her circumstances and Halley may not want to lose her daughter, things seem to only bet worse and worse for the two of them. Eventually, something has to cave.
The Florida Project is directed by Sean Baker, who made his claim-to-fame in 2015 with Tangerine — the first feature-length film to ever be shot entirely on an iPhone.
Baker, proven in Tangerine and now The Florida Project, has an incredible eye for depicting realism in a unique way. He takes a group of people in America who are in no way privileged and simply attempts to depict a slice of their life. They’re impoverished, unlucky, forgotten and trying so desperately to hold on to what they have (make it out of the Magic Castle and into the Magic Kingdom, if you will), yet can’t quite seem to make it work.
Yet Baker doesn’t approach it with a condescending or even negligent tone. Instead, he almost brings it about with a certain amount of romanticism.
Not to say that he makes this way of life look in any way glamorous, but rather it’s matter-of-fact. Moonee and her friends have been brought up this way all of their lives. They don’t know any better. As a result, they have a certain childlike innocence behind them that makes the whole situation seem a lot more tolerable.
This childhood innocence, however, comes out in different ways through the movie. Moonee is not a saint of a child in any sense. From the opening scene (which is incredible), we see her spitting on cars and calling strangers “ratchet bitches.” Yet, the more we spend time with her, the more we understand her way of life and how she ended up here — the movie becomes more and more heartbreaking as a process.
A lot of this comes down to the relationship between Moonee and Halley, an incredibly difficult one to define. Halley is not a good mother (like, at all), but still doesn’t want anything bad to happen to Moonee. Even still, while neither Moonee or Halley can admit it, the situation they are in is good for no one and before long we realize something needs to be done.
With The Florida Project, Baker chose to cast multiple non-actors (meaning people who have never acted in a film before and likely never intended to go into acting) to capture that sense of realism. The results are stunning. Brooklynn Prince is nothing short of spectacular in this role and could definitely have a career in this line of work, as are the young actors and actresses who play her friends. Bria Vinaite as Halley also does incredible work to an award-worthy degree.
The one recognizable face is Dafoe, who has obviously had some experience in acting before. But this is still one of the better performances that Dafoe has turned out in quite some time. His character is — in a certain sense — a guardian angel of sorts, being the strict yet forgiving motel manager who is sorting out and protecting everyone from their problems. Dafoe captures it brilliantly, providing the film with some of its most emotional moments.
The one flaw that I found with The Florida Project comes from its ending. The last ten minutes or so ramp up the emotions, as the inevitable moment we all knew was coming finally arrives. There are some beautiful moments in there, especially in one scene where we see Moonee lose control of her emotions for the first time (I won’t lie, I was a mess of tears). However, the film’s final scene is one that feels out-of-place and jarring. While there’s a certain amount of symbolism tied to this final scene, it feels completely outside of anything else that happened in The Florida Project and leaves the audience desiring more.
However, that feeling of wanting more is something that Baker can often do well in other contexts behind that scene. He never feels the need to over-explain characters and their backstories, or give them some kind of satisfying resolution. They’re all just here, existing day-by-day, trying to make ends meet. More often than not, they don’t. That’s the reality for some people, and while The Florida Project doesn’t offer any solutions on how to solve that (which was never the film’s intent in the first place), it gets all the credit in the world for being able to depict that in such a realistic and nuanced manner.
Watch the trailer for The Florida Project here (warning – even these short two minutes are a doozy on the emotions), let us know what you thought of the movie in the comments below, and check out where the film landed on our list of top ten movies we’re still excited for in 2017 by clicking here.
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A trip to the Magic Castle: 'The Florida Project' review9