Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives a life of revelry. As a permanent resident of the Magic Castle Inn in the hidden cracks behind Disneyworld, she’s free to run around as she pleases, pulling pranks and causing mischief with her friends. Moonee’s mom, the rebellious Halley (Bria Vinaite), is practically a child herself, relying on friends and questionable work in order to pay each week’s rent – usually late. Watching over them and the downtrodden Magic Castle is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of the Magic Castle and the sole cleaner of Moonee and Halley’s frequent messes. Blissfully unaware of her and Halley’s situation, Moonee lives life on top of the world – a world so precariously perched that it’s always on the verge of crumbling.
The Florida Project marks the first time that Baker has had named talent in one of his films, and Willem Dafoe definitely does not disappoint. Some of the film’s most emotional scenes are driven by his portrayal of Bobby, and you can really feel how much he cares for Halley and Moonee and how protective he is of them. Little Brooklynn Prince is larger than life in her role as Moonee, filled with a perfect mixture of irreverent attitude and subtle yet genuine heart rarely seen in an actor of this age, perhaps only rivalled by Quvenzhané Wallis in the thematically similar Beasts of the Southern Wild. Equally tiny yet powerful is Prince’s counterpart Valeria Cotto, who plays Moonee’s best friend Jancey from the Futureland Motel next door. Instagrammer-turned-actress Bria Vinaite shows considerable acting chops for her first ever performance, delivering quite heavy scenes with a real sense of authenticity.
Director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch reteam for a follow up to their gritty iPhone-shot hit Tangerine and stick to their secret to success in developing a project that highlights in a neon tinge the forgotten and festering parts of the United States. In the same way as Tangerine the team started with a concept – a renegade young mother and daughter duo living out of a motel and barely scraping by – then going to research through months of on-scene research and interviews before writing the script. This time, instead of the rougher side of Los Angeles, Baker and Bergoch shift down to Kissimmee, Florida, right in the shadow of what is meant to be the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
Cinematographer Alexis Zade does outstanding work, making the viewer feel as if they are a child themselves. This is done largely in part through camera angle. Most everything is shot at or below the eye line of a child, quite literally giving us Moonee’s point of view. Adding to this childlike wonder is the revisiting of creating a slightly over-saturated world, a style previously used in Tangerine creating a beautiful dichotomy between their situation and their backdrop.
Putting the viewer even further into Moonee’s head is Baker’s decision to remove the usual audience omniscience. Just as Moonee is unaware of many of the things going on around her, so is the audience, often right until conflicts reach their boiling point. This makes for a great element of suspense in this non-thriller film and is extremely effective emotionally. In a post-screening question and answer session with Baker and the cast, Baker stated that a lot of his inspiration for The Florida Project comes from wanted to create a modern-day reinterpretation of Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals, where the focus is on children and their adventures, rather than the hardships they live in, whether the backdrop is the Great Depression as in Roach’s works or the “hidden homeless” in Baker’s The Florida Project.