(originally published Mar 14, 2018)
The Florida Project is a breathtaking film that finds the sweetness in a grim slice of American life.
Centered on a group of screaming children living at a cheap and colorful motel near Disney World, The Florida Project mostly tells their story, occasionally breaking away from them to spend time with their parents or parental figures. There isn’t much of a plot, though the events of the film do begin to pile up and culminate by the end.
Most of the film is shot from the hip, aligning the audience with the kids' perspective and making them look like normal-sized people living in the huge world around them. I haven't seen too many films capture the experience of being a carefree youth quite as well as this. I was admittedly a bit put off by the kids, not because they weren't great, but because they were so great and believable that watching them run around and scream got annoying, as kids who run around and scream often do. After I settled into the film and the story got more fleshed out, I was more forgiving, and grew to care for them quite a bit.
The leader of the pack of kids, Moonee, is played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, and man oh man is she something else. I don't even know what to think of this performance. Can it be called a performance when the kid is 7 years old and probably isn't capable of understanding the magic she brought to the screen? I don't know. I just know that I've never seen a kid give a performance quite like that before. She transcends normal kid acting and completely steals the show.
Bria Viniate, who plays Moonee's mother Halley, also makes a stunning acting debut. On the surface, Halley is an extremely shitty person. She's the model of white trash, and like the kids, I had a really hard time watching her at first because her portrayal is so vivid and realistic. But Viniate brings a serious amount of heart to the role, her love for Moonee trumping everything else in her life. Even as she does and says awful things, that motherly love is still there, motivating all of her decisions, good or bad. She's a fascinating train wreck.
I've been focusing a lot on the acting in this film, but that's really where it shines, and no write-up of this film would be complete without talking about Willem Dafoe's wonderful turn as the manager of the motel. He's one of the few upstanding folks in the motel, stern but extremely supportive and patient with all of his tenants. He's the connective tissue that links all of these people together, and his scenes add some warmth and humor to the otherwise bleak proceedings.
Interestingly, the name of the film comes from the original name that was being used for Walt Disney World, which is of course right near where the film is set. I read more about it, and originally, Disney World was not meant to be a theme park at all. It was built as a supplement to Disneyland, envisioned to be it's own thing which included the original EPCOT, which stood for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and was meant to serve as "a test bed for new city living innovations." It was only turned into another theme park after Walt Disney died, and his vision for EPCOT along with him.
I find this particularly fitting for a film about what is essentially that; an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. "Tomorrow" from when The Florida Project was conceived in the early-60s is now the present reality of many poverty-stricken Americans, living wherever they can, scraping by however they can. It just adds another layer to this thick stew of observational realism, and cements it as one of the clear best films of 2017. There's so much more I could say, but you should just see it for yourself.