'The Florida Project' Film Review

Here are some buzzwordy adjectives to describe Sean Baker’s latest film, The Florida Project: genuine, charming, real, hilarious, touching, moving, beautiful, amazing. It’s truly all of that and more, encapsulating that indescribable slice-of-life feeling that so many movies try and fail to achieve. The film is hilarious without ever pandering for laughs. It’s tearjerking without ever feeling exploitative. The Florida Project is indie-filmmaking at its finest.

The film follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) on her exploits with her friends around the Magic Castle budget motel they all live in, a stone’s throw from Disney World. Despite her poor living conditions, Moonee makes the most of her days, keeping a smile on her face as well as any film goers’. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is between jobs and uses various scams to pay rent. The motel’s manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), does his best to keep everyone safe and in line. It’s a very simple plot, but The Florida Project is anything but simple. All of the complexities of life, especially when living in poverty, are on display here. Baker presents it all so realistically I almost had to double check I wasn’t watching a documentary. Of course, Dafoe’s presence and the beautiful cinematography give it away, but you get my point.

Alexis Zabe’s cinematography is truly breathtaking. There are so many frames of this movie that I want to frame on my wall. Baker and Zabe know when to pull back and use wide shots, making their young protagonist feel smaller in this larger than life world filled with colorful signs and billboards. They also know when to move in close and let their actors’ facial expressions do all the talking. The color palette on display paints every scene with vibrant child like wonder. Moonee sees everything with that same sense of wonder, despite her increasingly dire living situation. It’s just another step in fully ingratiating the audience into the world of this precocious child.

As Moonee, Brooklynn Prince is a revelation. Without her amazing performance, The Florida Project would fall apart. It feels like Baker plucked a random kid off the street and told her to do whatever she wants while they document it, and this was the result. Bria Vinaite as Halley is another revelatory find, walking the tightrope of being a reckless, if not careless mother. And Willem Dafoe as motel manager Bobby turns in a career-best performance in what has already been an incredible career. Dafoe’s Bobby is gruff on the outside, but soft where it counts. He’s protective of the patrons at his motel, even if he is consistently annoyed by their late payments and constant rule-breaking. No one is ever showing off in their roles. They just are the roles, and they’re amazing roles at that.

The Florida Project is a true portrait of lower-class living. It blurs the lines on what’s right or wrong, giving a totally three-dimensional look at a complicated upbringing. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer to the way things play out in the film. There’s just a bunch of people trying to be happy with where they are in life, even if they’re not quite at the Happiest Place On Earth.