Florida Project Review Willem Dafoe Brooklynn Prince Bria VinaiteYear: 2017
Director(s): Sean Baker
Writer(s): Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
35mm, Digital, Color, 111 mins

Synopsis: A precocious 6-year-old courts mischief and adventure while bonding with her mother in the shadows of Disney World. (Source)

It’s a well known truth that joy and happiness are inextricable with pain and sorrow. These extremes are nothing without the other, and life is what happens in the middle. Like very few films before it, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a product of this fact. As he’s done in the past, Baker’s fairy tale brings to light a community rarely seen on screen, this time focusing on the hidden homeless who barely scrape by within the outskirts of Florida’s mighty Disney World. Though the film doesn’t shy away from its poverty stricken reality, it’s ultimately a tribute to childlike innocence and purity, a reminder that we can’t afford to lose this perspective, especially when it comes to those around us. Pint-sized Brooklyn Prince is also a revelation, embodying the film’s angst, wonder and grace with a genuine spark that can’t be stifled. No matter who you look at it, Baker’s humanist eye and Prince’s charm make The Florida Project unforgettable, seeping into our souls to awaken even the deepest sleeper.

6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in the shadow of Florida’s burgeoning tourist traps. Just beyond the glamour and extravagance of Disney World’s gates, is a modest, purple motel named The Magic Castle. It’s here that Moonee and her friends call home. Without a care in the world, she and her friends create their own reality, bumming money for ice cream, playing in abandoned buildings, pranking neighbors and getting away with mischief thanks to their overflowing charm. As Moonee and her friends make their daily rounds, her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her other parents friends’ live from paycheck to paycheck, barely able to afford the cheap motel rooms they sleep in. Though Moonee and Halley don’t have much, however, they have imagination and an endless supply of love for each other. And despite the less-than-stellar conditions around them, that’s all these two need.

Above all, Baker’s film is a passionate reminder of the day-to-day riches that exist alongside hardship, and a heartfelt portrait of the poverty that exists literally outside of what we perceive as wealth and happiness. Moonee’s childlike perspective is pure poetry at twenty-four frames per second, and each scene is filled with an abundance of energy. Capturing the beauty of a life lived in the cracks, Baker presents Moonee and Halley’s story through a loose, abstract narrative, one that feels more like a hang-out film replete with doc-style realism. What Baker does so brilliantly, is tell a story full of sobering sincerity, one that cuts with its depiction of struggle, but allows us to view it within a blind sense of hope. For those paying attention, there’s an inevitable fate in the works, but its not just about where these characters end up, it’s the journey that got them there, and the unforgettable relationships forged in the middle. In the end, what we end up with is a waking dream that coexists with harsh reality, and an unprecedented tribute to life that’s contagious and inspiring.

Florida Project Review Brooklynn PrinceIt’s no secret that Baker’s cast is made up of non-actors, and it’s their sincerity that gives the film its honesty. Prince’s Moonee is a pure force of nature, leaping in and out of frame with life-giving ferocity. Baker himself knows the power of this little girl, and the reason why his film works is that she’s such a passionate, expressive force, able to balance extremes and shift at the flick of a switch. All of the story’s complexity comes through her, and it’s through her that everything feels so inescapable. She’s absolutely a dynamite discovery. As Halley, Vinaite is great with Prince. Together, the pair share a chemistry filled with unsaid love and respect. The depth that comes out of these characters comes from what isn’t said between them, but understood. Hovering over Prince and Vinaite in the best way, is Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, The Magic Castle’s gruff but lovable landlord. Dafoe’s dynamic with his tiny costars is the heart of the film, and the master actor provides paternal warmth and an indelible presence. As one of the only seasoned veterans amongst the cast, Dafoe’s gravitas adds to the stakes, and towards the end, helps us to come to grips with a heartbreaking reality.

The Florida Project is art with a purpose. It’s cute, funny and affectionate, but also a needed look at what really matters. This is another home run for Baker, fine tuning his eye for socially conscious stories with a childhood adventure that cries out to be seen. With its humane lens and urgent implications, Baker’s latest is on a level all its on, pure cinematic joy that’ll no doubt float to the top of this year’s best of lists.

SG