THE FLORIDA PROJECT Finds Beauty and Heartache in America’s Forgotten Places

The sunshine state sets one of the most moving films of the year.

Despite its banal locale and spare plot, The Florida Project succeeds in supreme storytelling, focused on the forgotten, the dismissed, and the ignored in modern society.

In many ways, The Florida Project is a lie. Not in the way all narrative is “made up” or something, but that if one found that stretch of Florida thoroughfare with its Waffle House and cheap motels and various gift shops, it would look nothing like what is depicted in the movie.

Director Sean Baker shows us not what things do look like in this forlorn world, but what they could look like. Every frame is a William Eggleston photograph, saturated to the point of breakage, with an eye that takes the everyday and makes it sublime.

And then there are the people.

The story centers around Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a little girl living in a rent-by-the-week motel in Orlando. She spends the summer with friends, playing in and around the place, essentially just being a kid, though in circumstances no youngster should have to deal with.

Moonee and her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) barely manage to keep from being truly homeless, and that struggle pervades every part of The Florida Project. This family and all those living in the series of motels up and down the strip are truly on the margins of society. In spite of this, some thrive, mainly the kids.

Willem Dafoe is a force of nature in this work. As Bobby, the manager of the motel, his character could be a scummy vulture. But he cares. A lot. About all of these people. His gait as he walks the property shows determination and a willingness to look forward into the future, head held high. He’s not the only character who doesn’t have to deal with extreme economic circumstances, but he’s the only one who gives a damn.

Moonie is like most other kids. She’s precocious and full of wonderment, finding adventures to go on and fun in every activity. Sometimes these are cut straight from middle America: getting an ice cream cone, going for a swim, chasing a rainbow.

But much of what Moonie and her friends take part in isn’t normal: panhandling, cursing, vandalism. While the adults of this world know the severity of the situation, the kids just wanna have fun, but with no supervision or help whatsoever, they’re left to their own devices.

Day to day, things don’t change much at the motel, but then that’s exactly the problem. Halley can’t or won’t find a steady job, so more and more hustling is required to get by. Eventually she engages in behavior that puts the whole enterprise at risk and brings things to a dramatic head by movie’s end.

It’s not enough to say The Florida Project is a tale of childhood innocence, though it is. Brooklynn brings to the screen one of the most authentic depictions of a young child in recent memory. But this naturalism isn’t in service of itself. With what unfolds by story’s end and the precipice she and her mother find themselves on, this film manages to make things so real they hurt.

And in this case, that’s a good thing.

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