The following review was written by master video essayist Nelson Carvajal of Free Cinema Now.
It’s hard to write about “The Florida Project” without writing about Florida itself. As I type this review, a new tropical depression that is forming could very well turn into Hurricane Nate and hit the Florida panhandle this weekend. This, of course, comes soon after the recent devastating destruction caused by Hurricane Irma. Florida has been through some challenging trials as of late and, in a lot of ways, that’s a very Floridian plight. For a state that shines on the billboard with promises of vacation and sunshine, the real Florida doesn’t look like the brochure getaway that so many Americans figure it to be. Like many parts of America, there are the parts we see, and the parts we don’t.
Sean Baker’s latest film “The Florida Project” tells another story about a part of Florida that we don’t see very much in the multiplexes. In its geographical spirit, it joins the likes of Larry Clark’s “Bully” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” but because of its pint-sized protagonists, it shares more DNA with Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Nobody Knows” and Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop”; that is to say that it gives us a worldview from a group of adolescents, who are mostly void of cynicism and anger. There is jubilance in much of “The Florida Project” that is instantly infectious.
Newcomer Brooklynn Prince stars as Moonee, the savvy and mostly good-natured six-year-old who calls the Magic Castle hotel her home. She lives there with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, an actress Baker discovered on Instagram) during most weeks of each month (by law they need to spend 24 hours at another hotel to not establish residency). For the most part, their contained universe of hidden homelessness is a place of self-manifested happiness—largely due to other families at the Magic Castle, who are at similar disadvantage, but take care of each other with warmth and tribal loyalty. The hotel itself is run by the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe, doing some really strong subdued work here), and the character is written to believable extents, meaning that although he is a surrogate patriarchal figure to many of the children running around the hotel complex, the script never puts him into the superhero level of heroism. He’s a man who has a job—and quietly loves his job—but carries his own wounds and knows just how much to get involved with each circumstance and family. It’s a terrific performance and Dafoe should expect some season-end award shows in his calendar.
So what is “The Florida Project” about? It’s about a lot of things. It’s a micro-scaled coming-of-age story. It’s about the lengths a parent will go to provide for their child, for better or worse. It’s a striking look at marginalized communities, especially when one considers how geographically close this hotel complex is to the Magic Kingdom itself (yes, THAT one with the famous mouse ears). But like most classical works of hardship in America, it’s a really good depiction of how survival is best strengthened by the bonds we make with each other and how love at the end of the day is the one currency that can’t be stolen or seized. If this review is being vague on plot, it’s intentional. This is a film best walked into with fresh eyes and ears, in order to best observe each scene’s nuance and quiet heartbreak. By the end, even the most stuck-up person will find it hard not to be touched by the film’s honesty and emotion. Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” is one of the very best films of the year.
“The Florida Project” opens in selected theaters in the U.S. today. It is one of the most perceptive films ever made about people routinely banned from our country’s kingdom of privilege.