NYFF Review: ‘The Florida Project’

The Florida Project | Sean Baker | NYFF 2017

The most remarkable feat about Sean Baker’s The Flordia Project is the way the director manages to both capture childlike innocence but also the humanity of a group of people surviving day to day at a cheap Flordia-based motel. Based on a script Baker wrote along with Chris Bergoch, the film focuses on the everyday life of Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, right near Walt Disney World. We see this area through the eyes of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is stuck to the confines of the motel, staying occupied with other children stuck in the same boat such as Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

Moonee lives at home with her Halley (Bria Vinaite) an immature woman who can barely take care of herself, who barely makes rent by pulling off random schemes from selling stolen amusement park bands or selling herself to visiting men in the motel room. This is a great cause of concern and frustration to Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the manager of the motel and the surrogate father figure to not only the children but in many ways to Halley as well. Bobby is a tough, no-nonsense figure but one with a big heart who gives motel residents such as Halley every chance in the world to get their shit together and find a way to make it work. But as we learn in life we’re usually our biggest enemies and theirs only so much that Bobby can do when he has a business to maintain.

While the overarching plot is just the relationship of Halley and Moonee and their interactions with Bobby and the motel’s other colorful collection of residents, Baker handles it all with such a graceful lens of humanity that it’s all you need to tell a moving, captivating story.

At just the age of Brooklynn Prince is a captivating presence on screen, who commands your attention and your heart. She and her friend’s natural innocence is captured so well by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who frames their interactions at the motel and the outer area by filming at their eye-level, transporting the audience to their worldview. There’s something to be said about watching these kids growing up on the brink of poverty when they’re just mere miles away from Disney World, the supposed “happiest place on earth.”

Equally convincing in Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor who Baker found on Instagram, who offers a performance that is just the amount of raw and believable. She has a kinetic energy and chemistry with Prince that works really well and allows you to see the love that they have for one another when we know deep down that Moonee deserves to be raised in a better environment.

However, the star performance of the film is the always fantastic Willem Dafoe. He’s absolutely terrific as Bobby, a role that calls for a stern boss like role but also tons of warmth and humanity that should net the actor many well-deserved nominations come award season.

The Florida Project is a terrific look at a part of society that so many of us ignore and it’s captured in such a humane way by Baker that is never judgemental or viewed as looking down upon. The fact that Baker used so many real-life residents of the real actual Magic Castle Inn & Suites adds a layer of authenticity that made a huge difference for what is ultimately a beautiful and moving picture about a part of America that is unfortunately ignored.

Rating: 9.0/10