REVIEW: ‘The Florida Project’ ★★★★

By Felix Albuerne Jr., Film Buff
Last Updated: Thursday, October 05, 2017, 12:18 PM EDT

“The Florida Project” is an enthralling piece of slice-of-life cinema.

Brought to life with vivid photography and arrestingly real characters, it’s an at-times harrowing glimpse into the lives of people living week-to-week on the brink of homelessness.

But because most of the film’s narrative is seen through the eyes of a child, the film escapes any feeling of moribund social lecturing or heavy-handed moralizing.

In fact, the film is often very funny, for no other reason that the children at the heart of the tale find their own magical adventures in places that, though they might be a stone’s throw away from Disney’s Magic Kingdom, would be considering anything but ‘magical’ by grown-ups.

What’s it about?

Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) at the “Magic Castle,” one of the many themed budget hotels along Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Florida, minutes away from the Walt Disney World property.

It’s summer, and Moonee’s daily life is filled with adventure, as she and other kids her age that live at the “Magic Castle” or neighboring properties find fun and mischief, often in places they shouldn’t.

For Moonee, the free-roaming life without structure or boundaries is just life as she’s always known it. Like her mother, the precocious child scoffs at those around who constantly remind them of “the rules,” like Bobby, the hotel’s manager (Willem Dafoe), who often finds himself cleaning up messes, both literal and figurative, that Moonee and Halley leave in their wake.

But there’s a difficult reality that serves as a foundation for Moonee’s day-to-day existence, one that she’s only marginally understands. Halley’s free-wheeling attitude toward authority makes holding a “traditional” job difficult, so to keep them fed and keep their rent paid week-to-week, she resorts to riskier money-earning means.

It’s only a matter of time before the consequences of Halley’s choices catch up with them both. But Moonee knows nothing of that – there’s only the next day, where can we go and what fun can she and her friends have, right up until the moment it all ends.

Grounded and honest

The setting and approach to characters in “The Florida Project” bears some similarity to 2014’s “99 Homes,” which was also set in the Orlando area (though shot in New Orleans) and depicted the lives of families left destitute and living in budget hotels following foreclosure on their homes.

But writer/director Sean Baker manages to avoid the dark and scathing tone of “99 Homes” in “The Florida Project” by keeping his narrative lens almost entirely focused on the perspectives of the children in the story. It’s because of that focus that the film can retain some element of humor and exuberance while depicting life conditions most would consider dire to downright dangerous.

It also provides a way for the film to showcase characters and situations in a way that’s relatively free from judgment while still being honest and grounded in real life. It’s because of that approach that some of the scenes and plot beats deliver the dramatic punch that they do as the film unfolds.

Vivid photography, strong performances

“The Florida Project” also proves to be wholly immersive and authentic thanks to memorable performances from its cast and stunning photography that captures the look and feel of a heartbreaking place just paces away from the “Happiest Place on Earth,” the Walt Disney World resort.

Aside from Dafoe, who delivers one of his finest performances in recent memory, the cast is full of discoveries made by Baker and his production team. Relative newcomers Prince and Vinaite are utterly believable and compelling as Moonee and Halley, who share a unique bond characterized by fierce loyalty to each other and to the life they share.

In terms of the film’s presentation, Central Florida residents will no doubt recognize the familiar sights and locations used as backdrops here. For non-Floridians seeing this world and community perhaps for the first time, the images should prove jarring. The many long shots and wide shots used to fully capture the cartoonish character of locations like the “Magic Castle” and “Futureland” hotels or the urban decay found in abandoned condos and timeshares bring the setting to life in an unforgettable way.

Worth seeing?

All that said, “The Florida Project” does suffer from pacing issues. For a good long while the film seems more interested in simply showing audiences the place and the people, rather than telling a story.

While the film’s authenticity is without question one of its strengths, it could arguably have still been established even with more aggressive editing. Thus, at just shy of two hours the running time might prove a little too much for viewers looking for more fast-paced entertainment.

That doesn’t mean “The Florida Project” isn’t worth seeing – far from it. The film and all the thoughtful, creative work that went into it, both behind and in front of the camera, deserves attention and appreciation. It may be more impactful on Floridians who know the territory well or at least are familiar with it, but even “tourists” visiting for the first time should come away with an indelible impression.

The Florida Project

Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, and Caleb Landry Jones. Directed by Sean Baker.
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.