The indie film The Florida Project is a little-seen story about the under-belly of the city that is the site of The Most Magical Place on Earth™. It’s about the long shadows and the forgotten people in them.
For almost the entire run-time the viewer follows precocious girl Moonee and her ragtag friends as they find fun and mischief in and around the brightly colored Orlando roach motels where they and their “care-givers” live week-to-week—the Florida projects. I’ve seen and enjoyed naturalistic films before, but nothing like this. Most slice-of-life cinéma vérité of this ilk is gritty for grime’s sake. The Florida Project doesn’t shy from the ugly stuff, but there are so, so many great shots and set-ups. Director Sean Baker is a young master on his way up.
The many untrained or new actors at the center of this film are grating at first, but once settled-in become amazing. Brooklyn Prince gives a performance beyond her years and Bria Vinaite embodies the brokenness of the people who find/push themselves into these lives. Willem Dafoe is the only name in the picture and he is like he’s never been. As the hotel manager, Bobby, he is restrained and empathic. The scenes where Bobby comforts Moonie while Department of Child and Family agents speak to her mom are truly heartbreaking.
There is the persistent and lingering fear that something truly horrible is going to happen. While there are some slight deviations from reality, The Florida Project touches this dark world without ever being exploitative and it achieves an ending that is at once wretched, poignant, and deserving of its spectacle.