By Karen Gordon
The Florida Project centers on six-year-old Moonie (Brooklynn Prince). She lives with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) in The Magic Castle Hotel, on an industrial strip just opposite DIsney World. Once catering to tourists-on-a-budget, the economic downturn has made them home to people who can’t afford rent and must live week to week.
The money doesn’t matter, though to Moonie and the gang of kids that live there. They’ve made a playground of the industrial strip and the undeveloped marsh land behind it. They run around in the golden Florida sun almost totally unsupervised, asking for change to buy a shared ice cream cone and return at night to their respective families.
Moonie is a pint-sized natural leader with already-honed hustler’s instincts, and a potty mouth. In an early scene, she taunts a woman whose car she and her pals - including her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) - have been using as a target for a spitting contest. The woman yells at the kids and Moonie responds with a series of insults (“Bee-Yatch!”). She’s punished, but the resourceful Moonie finds a win in the situation.
The insultee is raising her grandkids in the motel, and one of them, the shy Jancey (Valeria Cotto), accepts Moonie’s invitation to play together. Jancey is less of a trouble maker, but the two become fast friends.
Moonie’s mom Halley makes money any way she can, sometimes taking Moonie with her to help sell discount perfume, or whatever she’s been able to scrounge up that has value. At 24, Halley has already been in jail, has a massive chip on her shoulder and knows how to use her words to defend herself.
But she’s never cruel to her daughter. Halley loves her daughter madly and when she can indulge her, she does.
For a long time the movie just follows the kids. It’s perhaps inevitable that the film is being compared to Boyhood or Moonlight, two recent movies that focused on childhood. But The Florida Project has its own feel and its own story to tell.
The movie was co-written and directed by Sean Baker, whose critically acclaimed film Tangerine – an L.A. street-hustlers Christmas tale that popped with vibrancy - was shot on an iPhone 5, and was nominated for multiple awards.
As with Tangerine he’s largely cast unknowns in key roles for their naturalism. And what finds! Tiny Brooklyn Prince had some minor camera time behind her, but she’s the lead here in a role that calls her to be in nearly every frame. Nothing short of fabulous, her cherubic face goes from angel to demon in a nano-second.
This is the first role for Vanieta, who wasn’t even an actor when Baker contacted her via Instagram. This is her ‘a star is born’ moment. She’s ferocious and loving at the same time.
The only recognizable name in the cast is Willem Dafoe. That he’s a known quantity to us makes his presence is a kind of a perceptual wake-up call. The movie is so naturalistic and, for a long time, the structure is so casual, that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching actors in a movie.
“The Florida Project” is long and slow and takes its time building to the core of the story. By then you’re hooked.
It’s not that we know a lot about these people. Backstory is minimal. We have little idea how each of these families ended up so close to the bottom in American life. The system has failed them.
These people aren’t living the American dream. They’re barely making do. But still, The Florida Project suggests that our most precious relationships are held together with some undefinable, beautiful glue.
The Florida Project. Directed by Sean Baker. Starring Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite and Willem Dafoe.