The Florida Project 

When I was a kid, we took a family vacation to Florida. It was in the middle of summer and it was ridiculously hot and humid, the perfect time not to visit Florida. Anyway, one of the places we stopped was Orlando. This was when Disney World was still in the planning stages. On the TV, they were talking about what a great place Orlando was going to be once the park was built.
It was kind of a dump then.
And I gather from The Florida Project that parts of it still are. The movie takes place in a cheap Orlando motel, located on a busy state route in the middle of cheesy tourist traps. It could be the same motel my family stayed in all those years ago. I wouldn’t remember. All the buildings are painted bright garish colors. The motel in question is covered in purple stucco. The surrounding architecture is bizarre with buildings that look like giant oranges or with huge wizards emerging from the roof.
In this tacky but fanciful location Moonee, played by Brooklyn Prince, a rambunctious six-year old, runs wild. Her mother Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, is on parole and unable to find a job; her days are spent hustling up the funds to make her weekly rent. It doesn’t help that her behavior is little better than Moonee’s. So Moonee is allowed to run wild. The only person even trying to reign her in is the manager of the motel, Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe. Bobby is gruff on the outside, constantly threatening to throw Halley and Moonee out of their room but he never quite gets to that point. In fact he looks after the kids living in his motel, at one point chasing off a pederast who was bothering them.
The events in the film unfold over summer vacation when Moonee and her crew of friends have nothing to do but get into trouble. She is unable or perhaps unwilling to see how hard her mother is struggling and how close they are to catastrophe. But she also has a talent for having fun, of living in the moment.
The child actors are really good especially young Miss Prince. She is able to show us a kid, who despite her destitute circumstances manages to find joy and entertainment in her meager surroundings. You can also see her mother’s affect on her; the urge to stand up for herself, even if in unfocused, inappropriate ways. And when it all falls apart, Miss Prince acquits herself admirably.
Willem Dafoe, while not really stretching here, delivers his usual outstanding performance. Bobby is far from a saint and is at times unsympathetic. But Dafoe captures that dichotomy between grump and good guy particularly well here.
The Florida Project is a movie that’s hard to watch. I doubt that I caught half the dialog because the soundtrack is so muddy and the kids speak fast and they aren’t worried about speaking clearly. But the main problem is that most of the film is told through Moonee’s eyes, so her tiresome antics, most of which don’t advance the plot, take up a lot of screen time. That viewpoint also creates a lot of creative uncomfortableness when we see what’s going to happen. And even though she’s unpleasant most of the time, you do wind up sympathizing with her.
It’s a hard film to watch but a difficult one to stop thinking about.


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