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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. Halley, for instance, is not a good mother. She is a former stripper who seems to have difficulty getting and keeping jobs partially due to her attitude. 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 the bathroom. This is Bria Vinaite’s first acting role and she is excellent at capturing the anger and frustration of this woman who is basically homeless and struggling to get through each day. I felt for her, trying to raise a kid in this environment. However, her sometimes maddening selfishness makes it difficult to empathize with her.
Baker does not try to excuse this behavior or make her sympathetic. He also does not demonize her. She loves Moonee and wants what is best for her, though she does not seem to know what that is. Halley is young herself (probably early twenties; Vinaite is twenty-four)) and too immature to realize the long-term affects her self-destructive behavior could have on her daughter. Moonee, meanwhile, runs through life with a smile on her face in the way that only a six year-old yet to discover the realities of life could possibly do.
Brooklyn Prince, 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. She is lovable, but not in a “cute movie kid” way. 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 misguided. Moonee gets herself and her friends into a lot of trouble, but it’s out of boredom and naiveté, not a desire to do harm. She could be headed toward delinquency, yet there is still the possibility that good guardianship could turn her around. Unfortunately, this film is not overflowing with positive adult role models.
The best role model is Bobby, the motel’s manager, played by a superb Willem Dafoe. Bobby can be grumpy and stubborn, but does the best he can to take care of his clientele. He is exasperated by Halley, yet seems to care for her (there is a scene where he defends her against an accusation of robbery even though he likely thinks she did it). He definitely cares about the children. He is not running a daycare and is certainly not their father. Nonetheless, he does what he can under the circumstances. He is kind in a realistic way.
The Florida Project is a quiet, empathetic film. Its story reflects a marginalized part of society without being preachy. It may sound slight or even unpleasant. Some may not be interested in seeing a movie about a young homeless women who is a bad mother. But The Florida Project is not depressing. It is entertaining, thought-provoking and packs a strong punch. In short, it is one of the best films of the year.
4½ out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews