Ah, don’t you remember the joy of being a child? You had hardly a care in the world, only wanting to have fun and explore the world that seemed so huge and colorful. No matter what horrible things may have surrounded us, such as poverty, death, abuse and so much more, the optimism and hope for something better never fades. While the world may be a terrible place, you don’t really know that yet. Ignorance was our only instinct, while also being our only escape.  

The Florida Project takes place over summer vacation in Orlando, Florida. We follow the six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friends as they explore their run-down residence at the Magic Kingdom hotel and the various neighborhoods surrounding them. While Moonee and her friends are often out causing trouble, her trashy and unsympathetic mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) tries her best to make ends meet and provide a decent life for her daughter. As the summer goes on, Moonee and Halley go through many different experiences that will change their lives forever. 

The Florida Project is all about experiencing life as a child. When you were six years old, the world seemed like such a vibrant, gigantic playground that was begging to be explored. Writer/director Sean Baker vividly captures this nostalgic feeling with very creative and immersive direction. A lot of the focus is on Moonee and her friends exploring the colorful slums of Florida. A majority of their scenes are shot from low angles showing their point of view, and vast wide shots of them walking in front of huge buildings, showing just how huge children view the world around them. It was incredibly immersive, bringing me back to the times when I was an adventurous kid, where everything seemed more colorful, exciting, and full of life. 

The other thing that makes the film so immersive is just how authentic it feels. Aside from Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones, none of the people in this film are established actors. They all show that they don’t need to be, because they all give excellent performances. Some child actors can make for some truly miserable viewing experiences, but all of the kids here are excellent. The film is pretty light on the narrative side, mostly a slice of life type story, but it perfectly complimented the performances. It all feels very freeform, like Baker just sat the camera in front of the kids and told them to act natural. Brooklynn Prince as Moonee is destined to be a star, especially after witnessing one key emotional scene where she gets to let her acting run wild. While I really hate what awards shows stand for, I was delighted to see her win the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Young Performer. I hope it catapults her to bigger projects. 

When you have something that’s so authentic, though, it’s usually coming from a very real place. The real place The Florida Project comes from is an incredibly dark one. A place that’s often not explored with such tact. That place is the neighborhood that lives in the shadow of Disney World, or really any impoverished American neighborhood. A big theme of the film is that just outside this magical land of enchantment lies a society of people living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet. It’s a striking contrast when you see Moonee and Halley walk past a sign that says “Seven Dwarfs Lane” right after failing to hock discount beauty products in a desperate attempt to make money. No matter how much of a presence Disney tries to have in that area, it’s not enough to mask the true situation. 

The other star is Bria Vinaite as Halley in her film debut. Wanting the perfect woman for the role, Baker discovered Vinaite on Instagram and offered it to her. It worked out splendidly, because not having a recognizable face just made that much more realistic and immersive. I’ve known people exactly like Halley in real life: a person who realizes the awful situation she’s in, but doesn’t have the conviction or intelligence to fix it. It’s depressing to watch her make money in the most unethical way possible, then go blow it all on materialistic needs. It’s all to make her daughter happy, but she doesn’t realize she’s turning her daughter into the exact same person she is. Moonee is rude, curses, disobedient, and an overall bad influence on other kids, but she doesn’t know any better. 

The themes are very cyclical, as Moonee is destined to become the same person as her mother, but there’s a ray of hope that shines with Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the manager of the hotel. Although Dafoe is a very recognizable face, that sense of authenticity is never lost. While he’s aware of the kinds of people he houses, he’s empathetic to their situations, still trying to provide the best service he can. The hotel is all he has, and as long as people keep coming, he’ll have people to watch out for. He helps Halley numerous times throughout, acting as a sort of father figure. As any good parent eventually realizes, though, you can’t help somebody out with all of their problems. Sometimes you have to let them help themselves. 

The Florida Project is incredibly depressing film, simply because it’s so genuine in its portrayal of how real life is. It accurately represents a relentlessly growing problem in American society, all through the empathetic and open-minded lens of a child’s point of view. From the vivid pastel storefronts and hotels to the beige, chipping paint on abandoned houses, The Florida Project shows exactly what it’s like to be a child. Unfortunately, not all children are born into positive environments. It never stops them from having fun, though, which is what’s most important to them. Ignorance sure is bliss, eh? 


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