SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss multiple aspects of this film's storyline, so I encourage you to watch the film before reading this review.
There are a few aspects of The Florida Project that jump out at you on a first viewing. There's Willem Dafoe's incredible supporting turn, Alexis Zabe's color-infused cinematography and the masterful direction from Sean Baker. All of it is tied together by young Brooklynn Prince who showcases incredible talent at such a young age. But, aside from these, I found myself a little dumbfounded after first watching the film. It wasn't until I slept on it, woke up the next day and considered the film some more that the treasures of its narrative began to reveal themselves.
The Florida Project takes place in the shadows of Disney World. The setting for much of the film is a motel filled with people trying to make ends meet. In room 523 lives Moonee (Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee is incredibly rebellious. We meet her as she and her friends are spitting on a neighbor's car. When caught, they exhibit no remorse.
The temptation is to write Moonee off as just a poor kid with no manners. But she is just a child. As we'll come to find out, she doesn't know any better. Her entire life has been spent in harsh places just a stone's throw from the place of every kid's dream. In fact, this entire movie is an invitation of sorts. An invitation to not see socioeconomic status when we look at people. An invitation to see people when we look at people.
We certainly would not say that Halley is a good mother. While we do see moments of her caring for Moonee, there are many other choices she makes that put Moonee in dangerous or harmful situations. One choice in particular will shock and anger you. And yet, the movie does a fantastic job of giving us a snapshot of these lives and encouraging the suspension of judgment for two hours. Because one could make the argument that Halley's choices seem like last resorts after she has explored every other avenue. Does that magically make all her choices okay? No. But I do think it should make us question why she feels that was the only choice she could make.
When discussing people who are poor or impoverished, it seems like the common narrative is that they don't work as hard or they want people to give them everything they have. But one thing you can't say about Halley is that she's lazy. Even when her tactics stretch the limits of legality or break them outright, you cannot say that she is asking for handouts. She is working to provide for her daughter. Again, there is a choice she makes in that regard that certainly crosses the line and changes her and Moonee's lives forever. But that choice is even alluded to in an early line of dialogue with Halley saying that she doesn't want to live that life. It is clear that Halley feels she has no other options. Which brings up another question.
What kind of system creates a life where people think they've run out of options?
After watching The Florida Project and then considering it for a while, I found myself questioning the systems in place around Halley and Moonee rather than questioning them. I mean, do we really think that people want to live like this? Are people really going to just stay there because they can? Certainly there are some that will do that, but Halley and Moonee don't seem to be like that. They seem to make the most of where they are at, but they don't seem intent on staying there. They just seem unable to go anywhere else.
The movie progresses in episodic fashion as we follow the daily lives of these characters. Sprinkled in are scenes of the motel manager, Bobby (Dafoe). He is a nice man. He cares about the people around him. But he has to live within the confines of society, too - he needs the rent money every week. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. There are facts of life. For Halley and Moonee, one of those facts is that they need to pay the rent every week. That soon becomes difficult for Halley.
Without giving away any overt spoilers, let me simply say that the movie concludes in an open-ended fashion. There are no simple answers here, and life doesn't always get tied up in a nice bow. I think that is a powerful choice by the team behind this film. Some may be tempted to simply write off the characters in The Florida Project. It is easy for those of us who haven't had to worry about putting food on the table to scoff at those with less. More than anything, this film is about getting those of us who don't live such lives to put ourselves in the shoes of those who do. Don't just write these people off. Live their lives for a while and consider what it's like before you pass judgment.
That is the heart of what makes The Florida Project such a fantastic film. Couple that with the colorful palette, impressive cinematography, fine performances and surehanded direction and you have one of the best films of the year.
Note on content: There is a lot of profanity, including from the kids. There are depictions of drug use and some scenes of violence, including one graphic fight. Multiple characters wear skimpy outfits and it is clearly implied that characters are engaging in a sexual encounter off-screen. There is a scene where an elderly woman is sunbathing topless. Another scene makes it clear that an elderly man is a danger to the children playing near the motel, but he is caught before anything happens. Multiple scenes show Moonee in the tub, but only her shoulders and up are visible. Much of the film showcases children interacting with situations that are too mature for them.