The Florida Project

Jacob Richardson | 07/12/2017

Set in the shadows of Disney World, The Florida Project is a stunningly immersive look at poverty in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world.


Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) is a six year old girl living in The Magic Kingdom; a budget motel on one of the commercial strips around Disney World. She’s traipses around the purple building with her Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scootey (Christopher Rivera), causing havoc for put-upon building manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). She’s a rapscallion kid with little respect for others, which is likely something handed down by her welfare-riding mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is in a downward spiral, lashing out physically and emotionally as she struggles to pay rent and look after her daughter.

The Florida Project represents director Sean Baker’s follow up to his 2015 film Tangerine, which was a wondrous look at prostitution in LA shot entirely on an iPhone. Here, Baker eschews the telephonic camera form (except for a brief interlude at the end), and what we’re left with is an achingly beautiful, and heartbreaking, look at poverty in Florida.


Baker doesn’t so much explore a plot as he does a feeling; a point in time in this girl’s life. There is no traditional narrative arc as such, and at times this does make the film feel like it’s dragging, but there is so much to love in every moment that it transcends pacing issues. Baker perfectly captures this rag-tag gang of kids. It’s a fond and loving look, even when it’s brutally honest about how annoying they can be. From Mooney and Scootey spitting on the windshield of a parent’s car, to Mooney and Jancey slinking off to a fallen tree to munch on jam covered bread, Baker charts the intricacies of what it means to be a kid with such nuance that you’ll find yourself identifying with little elements instantly.


The film is grounded by two tremendous performances. First is from Willem Dafoe, who is so incredibly understated in this film. With very little narrative or dialogue help, he brings this struggling but noble building manager to life through sheer performance. There’s one moment where Jancey and Mooney hide under his desk in a game of hide and seek, and Dafoe’s reaction when Scootey finds them is a masterclass in character acting. It’s astounding to see, because if you took every line of dialogue he spoke and just read it off a page, his character wouldn’t be that sympathetic; it’s solely through what Dafoe, and Baker’s well-positioned lens, brings to the character that his many shades are revealed. That same understated elegance in exposition could be seen in a scene where a pedophile approaches the kids. Bobby eventually sees him off, but not once is there any dialogue about Bobby’s suspicions, and until the very end of that sequence there is no accusation. Baker creates the tension masterfully through shot choice, mise-en-scene, and, wisely, by focusing on Dafoe’s incredible skill.


Alas, Dafoe is eclipsed in The Florida Project by the young Brooklynn Prince, who is an absolute wonder to behold. She’s cute, rambunctious and a tour-de-force of childish joy, rolled up into a tiny, havoc-wreaking force in this purple kingdom. Prince perfectly encapsulates childhood, bringing what can only be presumed to be both scripted and non-scripted sequences together to create a seemless melding of performance. Her work makes the film feel real; as if we were witnessing a camera strapped to a stray fourth member of their little gang, rather than watching these kids perform in front of it. We’re immersed in their life, and Baker gives us the feeling that, should we turn the film off at any point, the story would still play out despite us not watching it. Baker gives us an immersive story, nuanced and powerful, but it is Prince who makes us believe it isn’t a story, but real life. She is the perfect foil for cynicism, and a incredible portrayal of childhood.


And that’s where The Florida Project differs from your traditional, released in time for the Oscars film about poverty, because it isn’t a story about poverty. It’s bathed in those issues, sure. The trio of kids stumble across decrepit and abandoned houses from the GFC, beg for money outside an ice cream parlour, and witness Halley’s struggles to provide for her daughter, but it’s not a film about any of these issues. Baker tells his story through Mooney’s eyes, and, as such, this makes it a movie about childhood; a story about growing up, and how these children not only fill their days with wondrous imagination, but also how they deal with true trauma in their lives with that very same skill. It’s all the more powerful for it.


The Florida Project, is an achingly beautiful, bathed-in-sunlight look at poverty in Florida, with tremendous performances from Dafoe and Prince. It’s also a strong proclamation from Baker, both about his own talents, and the ability for film, in this day and age, to still be smart, thoughtful and stunning.