Sean Baker’s newest film, The Florida Project, showcases some great young talent, an excellent performance from a veteran actor, and a compelling look at life in a cheap Florida motel. The film focuses on Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a 6-year-old, during a summer in Florida living in the Magic Castle hotel. Baker manages to create dynamic characters living in horrible conditions, but trying to make the most of what they have all while living by the most magical place on Earth.
The Florida Project is a terrific slice of life film set in Central Florida
Moonee lives with her mother, Hailey (Bria Vinaite), who is struggling to find work, or so she says, making it hard to take care of two of them. Hailey manages to pay her weekly rent at the hotel by hustling knock-off perfumes for a while, but times get tougher and she’s forced to become more resourceful. Vinaite is marvelous in her first role and manages to carry both the audience’s empathy and disdain. She clearly loves her daughter, but seems ill-equipped to take care of her in a way that is viewed as culturally acceptable.
Their housing situations often puts them at odds with Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the hotel manager. While he never gives them much of a break, there is a fatherly protectiveness that Dafoe brings with the character. It is easily one of my favorite performances of his as he is tough, but omits a positive protective quality that may stem from a failed relationship with his own child. That fact is hinted out in two scenes that feel like they could have been developed a little more, but is there enough to maybe justify his in action at moments late in the film.
As a Floridian, this film is full of landmarks that I’ve driven past many times, but have never really been to. There are a lot of beautiful shots in this film featuring Moonee and her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) wandering far from the Magic Castle on various, unsupervised adventures. Baker opts to shoot a lot of this in wide allowing the characters to walk across the frame while taking in the scenery. Of course, in weird contrast, not all of the buildings are in great shape. Yet, there is some beauty found in their dilapidated state possibly due to the optimistic youth in the frame with them.
The Florida Project is extremely moving as well, largely in part of the performances from the cast. Prince has the potential to be a superstar and echoes Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room from two years ago. Initially, the kids seemed a little too “acting” but as the film went on their performance felt much more natural and became extremely endearing. There were several bloodshot eyes leaving the screening I attended and lots of positive comments. I give The Florida Project the Must See rating and it’s one I’ll be adding to my collection.