We all see it on the regular. The welfare mom, barely an adult herself, dragging a kid around town looking for her next hustle. Based solely on appearances, it is so easy to judge and dismiss, however everyone has a story and sometimes that story will make you see things in a different light. Maybe it's a defense mechanism- turning a blind eye to the people in need around us everyday. Maybe it's a sense of "they must lead a terrible life to be in these circumstances." While THE FLORIDA PROJECT definitely points to these notions, it also gives the cycle of poverty a face- in this case that of an adorable, precocious girl, Moonee, whose mom just can't get it together enough to support them. This is Moonee's story though, where even when things on the surface are dodgy, she still seems to be having an adventure packed, loving childhood.
Moonee's mom, Halley, really does look terrible on paper. The waifish, disheveled young single mom can be found spending most of her days smoking and watching daytime television in the seedy-ish Orlando hotel room they call home. She talks in white girl ebonic speak and doesn't mince words when she's angry- which is often. Though she does babysit a friend's kid everyday to make ends meet, the reality is that her charge and Moonee spend their days getting in trouble around the tourist strip where their castle-themed hotel is situated. Halley's laissez faire attitude when it comes to her daughter's behavior and discipline does not necessarily bolster her case. Considering all of this, director Sean Baker beautifully paints her in Moonee's light as a young mother in the vicious cycle of poverty with no current possibility of upward mobility just trying to get by while still enjoying life. She's not a total loser. It doesn't appear that she drinks much and aside from a little ganga, she's definintely not a druggie. Though their one room dwelling isn't ideal, they don't live in anything close to squalor. She loves her daughter fiercely and encourages her to live out loud- even when the free spirit approach pushes good judgement aside. And therein lies the conflict- are her current dire straits due to systematic poverty or is it because of overall bad judgement? Halley's situation certainly begs the hard questions.
As heavy as the topic is, however, Baker's focus on Moonee keeps the film whimsical enough to not come off as a total bummer. To the contrary, Moonee is an absolute joy to behold. She is smart, silly, manipulative, and maybe a bit more devious than the average 7-8 year old should be. She has no idea that kids don't normally live in hotel rooms and eat handouts from the nearby waffle house. It doesn't seem to bother her in the least that her playground is the Orlando tourist trap strip right outside the "happiest place on earth." This is Moonee's normal, and as bleak as it may sound, her daily sights and sounds are a brightly colored menagerie of fantasy facades and run down locales that look like a great adventure through the eyes of a child. Though there's no actual POV, Baker somehow manages to romanticize the tackiest of roadside attractions Moonee and her friends visit even when the audience is fully aware that the glitz of Disney's Main Street is mere minutes away.
In Moonee's universe, her sole father figure can be found in Bobby, the no nonsense blue collar property manager trying to keep the low rent establishment afloat. Aside from all the usual headaches and responsibilities he deals with daily, Bobby also has to contend with the troublemaking gang of kids that run loose on the premises. The kids create plenty of unnecessary drama for him, yet it is obvious that his curmudgeon demeanor belies a genuine affection for his tenants, big and small. Bobby's greatest heartbreak is that he can only do so much from the sidelines when his guests take things too far.
The performances in THE FLORIDA PROJECT are so natural you are left wondering how much of the dialogue is scripted by Baker and his co writer Chris Bergoch and how much is actually improvised. While Willem Dafoe takes a more traditional and delightful turn winning hearts as the lovable hard ass Bobby, it's the seemingly natural performances from the mother/daughter duo that really make this film special. Bria Vinaite's portrayal of the struggling Halley is so spot on, I found myself wondering whether she is the product of on-the-street casting a la AMERICAN HONEY, or if when I see her in a future project she will be sporting a British accent and a refined look in contrast to the trashy persona she so aptly embodies in this film. Either way, her take on Halley is incredibly raw, genuine, and completely compelling. Though her young character has already been hardened by a less than fairy tale life and she has a penchant for tacky bravado, Vinaite injects a unique sense of sweetness into the character that keeps the audience firmly on her side even when she makes serious mistakes.
With a great supporting cast around her, however, this movie belongs to Brooklynn Prince as the firecracker Moonee. In a world of over acting children in mediocre sitcoms, it is wonderfully refreshing to see a kiddo acting like a kid and not waiting for the applause. Brooklynn's portrayal as the defiant yet good natured Moonee is an absolute revelation as we see her navigate a forgotten world where kids are still left to roam around the neighborhood and get in trouble. It is astonishing how she commands every frame in which she appears with a mischievous grin and a smart mouth. Though I know much credit obviously goes to Baker for his ability to draw such a performance from a youngster and to pick and choose what antics make the final cut, Prince's charisma is all hers and she owns this film completely.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a really solid slice-of-the-hard-life tale that offers much more than your average story of white trash doom and gloom. While many of these types of films can leave you with a not so fresh feeling, THE FLORIDA PROJECT and its somewhat incongruously abrupt ending leaves more questions than ickiness. Kind of like the aforementioned AMERICAN HONEY, only ten years earlier and without the indulgent meandering storyline and running time. In contrast, there is never a dull moment in THE FLORIDA PROJECT and every challenge is a new adventure. By showing the story from the perspective of a child, it forces us to look at the world without the preconceived notions that usually automatically dictate our feelings and instead invites us to consider compassion and better understanding of those less fortunate. I highly recommend checking out THE FLORIDA PROJECT when hit hits theaters soon.
aka Annette Kellerman