The Florida Project, a.k.a. Someone Call Child Protection Service: The Movie, is a brusquely effecting, blisteringly real portrait of quiet, destitute tragedy, bursting with one of the most authentic child performances I’ve ever seen. A bristly, bruising display of white trash voyuerism that earnestly examines and dissects what occurs behind closed doors in this destitute swatch of Florida slums, Sean Baker’s film manages a stoic, unjudging, curtain-drawn-back quality that escapes most storytellers, even if the narrative propelling the story is often secondary to the characters operating within it.
Somewhere in the midst of this rolling spirit quest, the 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), a neighborhood troublemaker with a heart of pyrite, surprises her newly adopted best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Peeling her fingers back from her eyes, before them stands a rainbow, criss-crossing its way across their most humble of abodes.
De facto street rats, begging for change to share a single cone of swirled soft serve, their thoughts naturally wander to the gold at the end of said rainbow. They cower at the inevitable leprechaun guarding the gold, lamenting out loud but accepting the fact that an easy life, one of ice creams all to their own, seems forever out of reach. It’s a meaningful calm moment in a film filled with meaningful calm moments and may very well be the intended thoroughline of this whole meditation on bringing up children in a welfare state: financial hope, and hopelessness, is hereditary. Even if there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s surely not intended for you.
Moonee and her unemployed, tatted-up young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in the shadow of Capitalism, a stone’s throw from The Happiest Place on Earth in a rather run-down motel. Willem Dafoe’s Bobby labors daily to maintain the property, when he’s not acting the surly but caring watchdog over the congregation of unsupervised kiddos. A fresh coat of purple paint can’t hide the fact that this scotched earth shab-quarters, ironically named The Magic Kingdom, is a project of the most desperate variety.
There reside the outcast, unwanted and discarded. The fleas, ticks and bedbugs of society, living amongst literal and metaphorical crocodiles. These are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe, the wretched refuse of our teeming shore that Lady Liberty proffered assistance and quickly forgot about and Baker, like Bobby, makes it his cause and mantra to humanize this rag-tag assemblage of social lepers. To offer them caring and understanding and empathy and acceptance. To make them more than a nuisance on society in his viewer’s eyes, if only for a moment.
Empathy is The Florida Project’s greatest weapon and Baker wields it admirable. Sure, there’s an abrasive desperation that permeates the film, collating in its characters minds, seeping into their very fabric like the cigarette smoke that Halley insists on huffing indoors with her child present, but there is hope laden in Baker’s empathic approach. He tells these tales of tragedy not to summon guilt and administer shame but to seek understanding. To shed light on issues brushed off and filed away like Halle and Moonee’s quasi-state of homelessness and the hustling required of them to keep their familial unit off the streets.
Baker attacks the story with a kind of wanderlust tenderness that escapes most. This is not a film built around plot devices. In fact, very little happens. We meet characters. Friendships are forged. Bridges are burned. Shit goes down. Focus is not centered on Big Moments but monotony and Baker manages to discover immense joy and tragedy in something as simple as evening bath time. Baker stewards relationships that are heartwarming and heartbreaking. We see the sometimes abrasive, sometimes unnoticeable ebb of friendships. In and out, these most important of people. A new connection usually leads to a culled old one.
Friends cycle in and out of Moonee’s life, something she appears accustomed to, as Halley lingers. An ad interim sticking place for bad things, she and The Magic Kingdom both.
To call what little Brooklyn Prince does in the role phenomenal is to sell the experience short. She is transcendent in such a way that just doesn’t often happen with child performances. Her performance is simply stripped of self-awareness, capturing that joy and confusion and awkwardness of being young and impressionable with what appears to be no effort at all. Behind the scenes, Baker proves a maestro at coaxing this unbelievably down-to-earth performances from his often inexperienced actors.
Vinaite, who has no prior acting experience and was plucked by Baker from her Instagram profile, is crushing as Halley. It’s a dauntless performance throughout, tender and exposed and raw and violent, and Vinaite too handles it like it’s nothing but a Sunday walk in the park. Dafoe’s impact shouldn’t be skimped over, even if he is the seasoned pro of the group, as he inserts a kind of fatherly warmth into this performance that’s absolutely riddled with complexity. As a kind of surrogate dad for the circus of bastard children and, in some cases, their down-on-their-luck parents, Bobby tows the line with a steely stare or a hard word but comes from a place of genuine caring, dare I say loving.
The performances sell the picture but the director’s magically empathetic presence is baked into its very essence. Closing the film, Baker retreats into an aesthetic those familiar with his debut film Tangerine will remember. The transformation gives the bookend a dreamy quality, amplified by all the imploding that just took place beforehand, making for a gut punch of an ending that gives the film more sticking power than gorilla glue.
Destined to be this year’s American Honey (both are wandering, lyrical, bare bones in terms of plot, though this is even better than that diamond in the rough) The Florida Project is a humanist primal scream, a lovingly crafted portrait of unfettered soulfulness. Both films may seem designed, designated and destined to be heralded by critics and film festival-goers but just don’t draw the admiration of mass populations and that’s a damn shame. Watching The Florida Project is like therapy. It’s challenging, it makes you confront things you don’t want to and it can be depressing as hell but when you exit the theater, you feel almost reborn, opened to a new way of looking at the world and the people in it. And that is what, ladies and gentlemen, is what cinema is for.
CONCLUSION: A powerful punch of empathic, humanist, character-driven cinema, ‘The Florida Project’ boasts a trifecta of sublime performances (Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe) but it’s its subtle storytelling and triumphant edge of understanding that demands your seeing it and, consequently, being moved by it.