The Florida Project is one of the most human and honest movies I’ve seen akin to Yasujiro Ozu’s film work. It’s a bittersweet story of painful truth and natural uncomfortability that can be found in every day life. Willem Dafoe, in what might be my favourite of his roles, plays Bobby, a manager of a motel populated by long term stays of the poor and downtrodden. Among these tenants is the dysfunctional early 20s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her independent strong willed daughter Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) who spends her summer going on makeshift adventures with the other few children of the motel.
The core of what makes the movie so endearingly powerful is its pure unwavering honest display of its characters and their day to day lives creating a shared summer break for the audience that they will never forget. A summer of blissful innocence amongst child endangerment as Moonee and her friends gallivant across town convincing strangers to buy them ice cream, having spitting contests, and exploring every corner of the run down motel. Meanwhile, Halley is nowhere to be found unless she’s cursing up a storm, scamming strangers out of money, or partying with her neighbor. Although this is Bria Vinaite’s first performance, I’m almost convinced that her character is actually a real person that director Sean Baker somehow filmed without her knowledge.
Halley is the embodiment of every young mother who has let their six year old endlessly wander off, curse, and shouts at anyone who questions her parenting. Tattoos, poor hygiene, drug use, pierced lip, tongue out, every sentence punctuated by fuck or bitch; she is the pure image of an adult who never grew up and doesn’t know the meaning of responsibility. Made even worse when you see how she treats Moonee like a friend rather than a daughter as Moonee adapts her language, gives people the finger, and twerks. All in complete innocence yet worrying all the same.
But Vinaite achieves something amazing in her performance in that you don’t hate her character simply because of how believable she is. She’s so convincing that you can only appreciate her talent and feel pity for her character rather than anger, especially when you see how much her character thrives on it. A critical shot of her character is an extreme close up of her mouth shouting “Fuck you!” It’s the perfect representation of her character; a portal of noise, hatred, and ignorance. Humanly specific traits that are heartbreakingly all too familiar from experience.
Whether it be a family member or a stranger on a bus, you will find people who are an exact copy of Halley; a young single mother doing anything she can for cash with her kid trailing behind like an accessory rather than a child. A questioning glance or a comment about her language will be met with unstoppable ignorance and anger because in her mind she is never wrong. And as long as she continues to be loud, and hateful, and impossibly stubborn, no one can say otherwise. Whether the person you encounter truly is a victim of a poorly dealt hand, or a bad upbringing that has now repeated onto their own child, or is just an irresponsible tear-away of society is one of the biggest questions you are left with in life.
Willem Dafoe acts almost like a shepherd to this struggling flock as the manager of The Magic Castle Motel. His summer days are spent evicting furious tenants, trying to fix the multiple failing utilities, and nervously keeping an eye on the ever present children whose parents could care less about their safety. A safety that is endangered by fist fights, prostitution, and strangers who may have an eye for the kids playing outside. Yet all of this danger is shrouded by a dark lighthearted sense of humor. Like the cheerful purple paint job covering the motel, hiding the damaged goods that have taken residence.
His character’s humanity is found within his particular tolerance of Halley’s behavior. With Moonee and her friends running around the premises like lost puppies, Dafoe silently feels sympathy for the kids and their parents’ living situations. But his patience is inevitably having to be tested again and again and he has to question where does sympathy end and enabling begin? He’s an unsung guardian in the simplest way.
Yet amongst all the adult dysfunction and harsh reality lives Moonee and her few friends who dont have a care in the world and go with the flow of their parents’ lives. If a movie ever embodied another movie’s quote, then The Florida Project would be paired with The Night of the Hunter. To quote the unbeatable Lillian Gish, “Children are man at his strongest. They abide and they endure.” So is the story of their slice of life childhood that we sincerely try to focus on to block out reality just as they do.
Brooklyn Prince’s performance completes the film’s pure honesty by portraying a real child through and through; malleable, imaginative, and unapologetic. There isn’t a shred of false or sappy emotion in hers or any of the child actors’ performances. They almost have their own foreign language, being at the age where you can fluently talk, but not all of your sentences make sense or come out just right. Anyone hoping for a rendition of “Kids Say the Darnest Things” will be thankfully wronged by their talents to play their characters so realisitcally.
This is most notable when Moonee encounters a situation that could mean drastic unknown changes for her life. Throughout the film Moonee has shown herself to be a clever optimist and a mile a minute explorer, almost representing the innocence of her own mother’s soul. She’s the driving force of positivity through the whole story, but what breaks your heart is when this little girl, who has greeted everything in life with a smile, cries. You’re watching a genuine child cry from the pain of disillusionment. And in doing so you’re watching the happy hero of our story brought down. You’re not just sad because you’re watching a crying child, it’s that you’re watching a real living character experience sadness and it’s absolutely sobering and brilliant.
To finish with Lillian Gish, “It’s a hard world for little things.”