The Florida Project – New York Film Festival Review
By Adam Yuster
“Celebrate good times, come on!”
The opening credits of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project are set to “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. A fitting choice – not, as one might think, because The Florida Project unfolds on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, but because the film is a glorious celebration of childhood, love, and resilience.
Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) is a foul-mouthed, spunky six-year-old girl who is an extended-stay guest at The Magic Castle motel along with her equally outspoken mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). While it is unclear how long they’ve lived at The Magic Castle, this is definitely not a vacation. They barely have enough money to live in their motel room, let alone anything resembling a traditional home.
Due in part to her abrasive personality, Halley drifts from job to job, so she often comes up short on rent. Bobby (Willem DaFoe), the tough-love manager of The Magic Castle, turns a blind eye to her missed payments out of a sense of common decency. As it turns out, Bobby has built a small community of extended-stay motel guests that include Moonee’s friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik).
There is very little plot to be found in The Florida Project. The film consists of disparate storylines dictated by the day-to-day exploits of Moonee, her mother, and other hotel occupants. Random scenes include Moonee befriending recent arrival Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a spitting contest, mayhem in abandoned condominiums, a mother-daughter perfume sales stint, and more. The Florida Project is like To Kill a Mockingbird for the working class: highly episodic in nature, but with strong characters that more than make up for the lack of plot.
First and foremost in that department is the endlessly compelling Moonee. Moonee embraces life completely, despite hardships that would give most adults pause. In her eyes, every day is an adventure, and The Magic Castle is her own Disney World. She is bound only by the limits of her positivity and imagination. Brooklynn Kimberly Prince portrays Moonee with the perfect blend of innocence and maturity. Child acting is a tough thing to nail, but in Prince, Mr. Baker found a star that perfectly captures his main character and the spirit of his picture.
And yet, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the breakout star of the film is Bria Vinaite. An Instagram star turned actress, Vinaite knocks it out of the park as Halley in her first ever film role. A less nuanced performance could lead to Halley being perceived as grating and unsympathetic. But Vinaite displays such range in her performance that it is impossible not to root for Halley.
DaFoe, too, is a treat here. Bobby never openly admits to caring for Halley and Moonee, yet Dafoe’s subtle acting hints at the sensitive father figure behind his rough exterior. Though he appears rather infrequently, his scenes leave a massive impression.
Aside from some minor repetitiveness in the second act of the film, the one grievance I have with the film is its conclusion. The film fails to resolve a late-breaking plot thread that puts Moonee and Halley’s relationship in peril. In place of that thread’s completion, we get a final scene that is a dreamy, faux-upbeat fantasy, closer in tone to the end of Birdman than the rest of Baker’s hyper-realistic piece. I would’ve much preferred to see the story reach its proper conclusion.
On the whole, The Florida Project is a wonderful little film about finding magic in the least magical of places. It is most definitely a “Celebration” worthy of your time.