starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones
written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
directed by Sean Baker
by Walter Chaw Sean Baker's The Florida Project follows the day-to-day of a group of five- or six-year-olds as they run wild through the broken-down streets, hot-sheet motels, and abandoned buildings that serve as the ramshackle spokes radiating out from Disney World in Orlando. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is the ringleader, impossibly exuberant and sly in exactly and only the way a six-year-old in full operational mode can be. She is a force of nature, and Prince's performance is entirely unaffected. It's a miracle. Moonee's best friends are Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and they roam far afield, standing on picnic tables, exploring empty housing units, experimenting with lighters, and scamming ice-cream cones from marks more exhausted by their pitch ("I have asthma and my doctor said that I...") than convinced by it. I was free like this when I was 5. I grew up in downtown Golden, Colorado, which has as its main identifying feature a wooden sign stretching across its "main" street ("Washington") that says "Howdy Folks!" I used to catch flies and shine shoes in the barbershop on the corner. The barber was the mayor, Frank. I spent the pennies I earned at the 5 and 10 across the street. The Florida Project is about that.
The Florida Project is in its way as lovely an accomplishment as any Faulkner short story, sporting the same effortless sense of American-ness in allowing the feat of being human to be the music that drives the piece. Moonee's mom is Halley (Bria Vinaite), not much more than a child herself, covered with tattoos, strutting through the world with the damage showing through. She pays once a week on the daily, $35 charge for staying at the "Magic Castle" motel, managed by frazzled Bobby (Willem Dafoe). He threatens that if Halley doesn't control her kid, or is late with the rent one more time, she's out. But you get the sense from the way he lingers for a second after saying it that he doesn't really mean it. Or, if in meaning it, he regrets some of the choices he's made, too, and recognizes the narrowness of the margin that separates the two of them.
The Florida Project begins as an idyll of childhood, but somewhere in the middle the desperation of being an adult comes into relief. The kids spit on cars, go where they've been expressly forbidden to go, beg free meals and treats where they can. They find the only wild spots left, pointing out the ponds where some adult at some point has told them there might be danger and creating moments for themselves that we recognize will become the foundations for a lifetime's emotional sense memories. There's a scene where Bobby rousts a creepy old pedophile with an insistent, controlled rage; another where he does some hard math and discovers how it is that Halley's been making the rent. Baker, though, doesn't let one aspect of the film overwhelm the other. He lingers on a long, extended sequence where Moonee avails herself to the free continental breakfast offered by a local, high-end tourist resort, and we realize this is Halley memorizing her kid at this moment, right before the end comes. I've thought more about The Florida Project and its characters since I've seen the film than any other movie in years. Days, weeks later, I wonder if they're all okay. Barring that, if they're safe at least. I wish them well. The Florida Project is painfully good. Baker has arrived.