Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a six year-old girl on summer break living with her single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a rundown motel in Kissimmee, Florida. She splits her time between playing with the other kids who live nearby and scamming tourists with her mom.
The Florida Project tells their story in a film that is sad, poignant, realistic and occasionally even funny. The film was directed, co-written, produced and edited by Sean Baker. He does not cast judgment on his characters. He shows them as they are.
Halley, for instance, is not a good mother. She is a former stripper who seems to have difficulty getting and keeping jobs due to her attitude (though she sees that as everyone else’s problem, not her own). This would make her life difficult enough, but the fact that she and Moonee are essentially homeless compounds the challenge exponentially. This is Bria Vinaite’s first acting role (Baker found her on Instagram and asked her to audition). She does an excellent job capturing a woman living on the fringes, who does just enough to get through each day. Like many people, she got stuck in this position and has no idea how to claw her way out. I felt for her, trying to raise a kid in this environment. However, her sometimes maddening selfishness makes it difficult to empathize with her.
Halley can be neglectful, uses those around her for her own personal gain, exploits her daughter by using her in criminal behavior and prostitutes herself to strange men in their room while Moonee waits in their bathroom. Baker does not try to excuse this behavior or make her sympathetic in any way. But he also does not demonize her. She loves Moonee and wants what is best for her, though she seems to think that whatever is best for herself in any individual moment is what is best for her daughter. Halley is young herself (probably early twenties; Vinaite is twenty-four) and is too immature to realize the effect her self-destructive behavior has on her daughter. She is trying to survive the only way she can think of. Unfortunately, that way is not healthy for her, Moonee or anyone around them. Moonee, meanwhile, runs through life with a smile on her face in the way that only a six year-old who has yet to discover the realities of life could possibly do.
Brooklyn Prince, who is only seven years-old, is essentially the star of the film and she is terrific. She is full of life and has an innocence about her that is hard to fake on the screen. True, she gets herself and her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), into quite a bit of trouble, but it’s out of boredom and naiveté, not a desire to do harm.
If Halley represents the hopelessness some feel for the present, Moonee represents hope for the future. She is smart and has moments of surprising insight. She is not a bad kid, just a misguided one. She seems like she might be headed for a childhood full of troublemaking; however, there is still the possibility that good guardianship could turn her around. Unfortunately, this film is not exactly overflowing with good adult role models.
Perhaps the best role model among the adults is Bobby, the motel’s manager, played with warmth by the always enjoyable Willem Dafoe (a two time Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee). Bobby can be grumpy and stubborn, but he does the best he can to take care of his clientele. He is exasperated by Halley, but seems to care for her (there is a scene where he sticks up for her against accusations by an angry tourist even though he probably thinks she is guilty). He definitely cares about the children. He is not running a daycare and he is certainly not their father, but he does what he can for them under the circumstances. He is kind in a realistic way. He is not a savior.
The Florida Project (109 minutes before the end credits) is a quiet, empathetic film. It tells a story that reflects a marginalized part of society and does so without preaching. Sean Baker has made a mature, thoughtful film featuring realistic characters who are not always likeable. He has also produced one of the best child actor performances I have ever seen, from Brooklynn Prince, and an impressive debut from Bria Vinaite. The Florida Project may sound slight or even unpleasant to watch. Some may not be so excited to watch a movie about a young homeless women who is a bad mother. But The Florida Project is not depressing. It is thought-provoking and packs a strong punch. It is also very entertaining. In short, it is one of the best films of the year.
4½ out of 5
Brooklynn Prince as Moonee
Bria Vinaite as Halley
Willem Dafoe as Bobby
Valeria Cotto as Jancey
Christopher Rivera as Scooty
Mela Murder as Ashley
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch