Everyone is familiar with Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — but few people know what’s going on right outside the “happiest place on earth.” With his movie “The Florida Project,” director Sean Baker takes the audience to a place that couldn’t be a larger contrast to the world-famous amusement park populated by mice, ducks and princesses.
In the film, Halley (Bria Vinaite) lives with her six-year-old daughter Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) in the “Magic Castle,” a motel painted completely in purple on the outskirts of Disney World. Tourists only show up when they accidentally book a room there, otherwise, it’s inhabited on a week-to-week basis by people on the lower end of the economic ladder. The motel is managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who deeply cares for his guests/tenants, but he also does not put up with their excuses. Mooney spends the summer playing with the other kids of the complex, especially with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera). She also helps her mom sell discounted perfume outside fancy resorts, but they are constantly on the run from security guards. When child protection services is alerted and start looking into Halley’s life, Mooney’s world is turned upside down.
Similar to last year’s Oscar winner “Moonlight,” “The Florida Project” puts its focus on a very underrepresented subject in the movie landscape. Making a film about the struggle of the lower class as they slip into poverty is as brave as it is important because in today’s economy, more and more people struggle even with the basic necessities of life like paying for food and rent or providing for a child. The film is almost entirely told from Mooney’s perspective, creating a more innocent tone for some of the movie’s darker themes.
Prince, who played Mooney, gave a stunning performance. She is as charming as she is mischievous, and it is heartwarming to see how she makes friends and makes the most of her very limited resources at the motel. The other shining star in this film is Willem Dafoe. His character is troubled and tired from the misery he has to see on a daily basis, but he’s also a very optimistic person and doesn’t hesitate to stand up for his guests. He’s not just the manager of the motel but more like a patriarch. Dafoe even lived in the area prior to shooting to perfect his accent and study the urban environment.
After the critical success of his last film “Tangerine,” which was completely shot on iPhones, Baker, who wrote and produced the film in addition to directing it, was able to work with a bigger budget, and he used it wisely by opting for 35mm film instead of digital cameras. This helped cinematographer Alexis Zabe create beautiful pictures despite the dismal content, and the colorful post-modern landscape of Florida’s outskirts provided the perfect backdrop for that.
“The Florida Project” may be uncomfortable for some, but it is an important movie that doesn’t sugarcoat reality. It raises awareness of the fact that 15 million kids in the United States live below the poverty threshold — almost a quarter of America’s children and a statistic that continues to worsen. Despite this fact, the movie never gets preachy or has a moral. It merely gives the viewer a glimpse into the harsh reality for millions of families in this country. It’s sad, it’s evocative, but the filmmakers do their best to find beauty, and this film is the sum of all that.
Overall Rating: 8/10
If you liked these movies, you’ll like “The Florida Project:”
Tangerine, Moonlight, Stand By Me, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
The Florida Project (2017)
Directed by Sean Baker
With Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch
Cinematography by Alexis Zabe
Music by Lorne Balfe
Edited by Sean Baker
R-rated, 115 min.