'The Florida Project' movie review: Joyous, heartbreaking tale of childhood in the Sunshine State
Joyous and heartbreaking but ultimately painfully humane, "The Florida Project" (opening in additional cities Oct. 20) beautifully captures the happy-go-lucky feeling of childhood juxtaposed against the grim desperation of those living on the edge of complete poverty.
In short: Rebellious young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her feisty six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) live in The Magic Castle Motel, under the watchful eye of its manager Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe). Moonee and her wayward friends play and explore around the Magic Castle while her mother struggles to pay her weekly rent.
"The Florida Project" beautifully and brilliantly tells the same story from two points of view: a child's carefree summertime adventures with her friends and an unemployable mother's increasingly reckless methods of keeping a roof over their heads. Moonee is the heart of "The Florida Project" while Halley is its troubled soul.
Spirited and precocious Brooklynn Prince is the breakout star of the film. Prince's turn as Moonee is so genuine and natural that it feels more akin to an observant cinéma vérité documentary than a calculated and nuanced acting performance. She not only commands focus in her every scene, her effervescent energy injects pure youthful joy into the very fabric of the film. Moonee's rambunctious antics are silly -- and Prince's constant charm makes it so difficult to stay too mad at Moonee.
Moonee's hijinks are funny at first - but as the film moves along, it's clear that she is essentially a feral child with little to no adult oversight. Her rowdy behavior becomes troubling in the context that it's a direct result of her unstable, tenuous place in the world - mainly due to her mother Halley's choices. An underlying darkness clouds the otherwise radiant joy of Moonee's misadventures. At any point the mother and daughter could be forced out of their motel room home - so Moonee is left to largely fend for herself while Halley hustles and schemes ways to make money to pay her weekly rent.
Great films put their characters in increasingly impossible situations - and Halley is already on the verge of complete poverty at the start of the film -- and the walls start to close in on her. If Moonee's half of the film captures the magic of childhood, Halley's half epitomizes an all-too relatable threat of impending homelessness and increasingly dire choices. Actress Bria Vinaite makes Halley an utterly contemptible and negligent - but tragically empathetic - young woman who is less of a firm maternal figure than an playful older sister. On paper it's so easy to hate Halley for the short-sighted choices she makes that endanger herself and her daughter -- but "The Florida Project" also establishes her plight as not entirely in her control.
Tying both stories together is a wonderful and grounded Willem Dafoe performance. His character has to deal with the antics of both mother and daughter - while also dealing with the concerns of the other temporary tenants of the brightly colored hotel. He is part hotel manager and part reluctant father figure to Moonee and Halley, forced to intervene when no one else will call out their unacceptable behavior. Dafoe is extraordinary as a manager forced to take care of the Magic Castle, as well as its cast of long-term tenants. Dafoe has played many over-the-top and cartoonish characters in his career - but this is his most human, nuanced and moving role to date.
Director-cowriter Sean Baker ("Tangerine," "Starlet") has solidified his place among today's most moving and powerful filmmakers. His latest is a beautiful and tragic tale that is somehow carefree and desperate. "The Florida Project" is at its most powerful when Halley dips her toes into her daughter's untroubled life and Moonee acknowledges that she can always tell when an adult is about to cry. And the ending is absolute, blissful and heartbreaking perfection.
Final verdict: "The Florida Project" captures the dreamlike joy of being an adventurous kid blissfully unaware of the tragic nightmare her mother endures daily. This is one of the very best films of 2017.
"The Florida Project" opens in additional cities Oct. 20. This indie drama has a running time of 115 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.