Not too many films feel authentic when it comes to the hardships of life, but when the right one comes along, the result can be emotionally engaging unlike any other. One example is 2013’s Short Term 12, which was my favorite movie that year. Just like that movie, The Florida Project is a movie that is tough to watch but is a very powerful glance into a world worth seeing. Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine is a cathartic yet colorful spotlight of project housing just outside the most magical place on earth – Disney World.
The film is set in a Florida motel which houses many low-income residents. Sean Baker’s direction is quite impressive here because even though the conditions are bad, nothing ever feels truly unpleasant. Most of the reason for this is that the film centers on Moonee, played by Brooklyn Prince – who is absolutely incredible in this movie. Moonee is full of love and light as she plays with all the other kids in the same building. Moonee’s mother Halley has a very loving yet contentious relationship with the management and the tenants, due to her circumstances as well as her life choices.
Through most of the film, bad things are happening around them, but none of the kids ever seem to care or notice. It’s a remarkable perspective of innocence overcoming hardship. Moonee and the other kids also enjoy picking on the building manager Bobby – played by Willem Dafoe – who, despite his lack of patience with the trouble the kids cause around his motel, he doesn’t seem to mind them bothering him.
The performances are incredible with Willem Dafoe leading the charge. He brings so much authenticity to a character who knows he has people to take care of – and you can tell he loves helping his tenants. All of these people depend on his ability to keep the place up and running, whether it’s power or water. This is the true meaning of the saying, “not all heroes wear capes.”
Also, there’s a very understated emotion he has for Moonee and her mother, which is never truly explained but shines through organically in his performance. What most people should be talking about is Brooklyn Prince’s breakout performance because she will break even the most apathetic of viewers. It’s a very sweet and tragic journey for her, but one that shines seamlessly. I don’t think a child actor has been this great since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The thing I love most about The Florida Project is how it makes you question the idea of “normal.” What does a normal life mean? If it means you are happy, then is that enough? Should that be enough? When the film ended, my wife and I discussed this long after the credits rolled. Yes, Moonee’s living conditions and her mother’s choices are very rough, but nothing in their world seems unhappy until other people decide differently. It’s a fascinating viewpoint and one that will challenge some viewers, and for that, Sean Baker deserves some major recognition.
Overall, The Florida Project is one of my favorite movies of 2017 and is for sure on my top 10 of the year. The movie has a very strange ending, which will divide some audiences, but the film as a whole is almost flawless. For a film to feel this truly authentic is a rare achievement and one the cast and crew should be proud of. The Florida Project is a glimpse into a person’s quality of life, and the result will have you asking: is the glass half empty or is it half full? I’m still unsure where I stand.