It’s hard to write a review of The Florida Project, a movie that is so much about its mood and tone – and so little about its plot, in some ways – and yet, it’s a movie that I’m compelled to talk about, just in the hopes of making more people watch it, because it brought me such joy. It’s a film that feels like you’re simply watching people live their lives, giving us a window into the lives of the working poor while filtering it through that inexpressible optimism and silliness of childhood. It’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly honest throughout, showing us its characters without judgment or scorn – and that’s a sentiment I can always get behind.
The Florida Project takes place at a hotel that’s more or less serving as an apartment complex for a number of lower-class working families. More than that, it focuses on the kids that live in (and around) that complex, especially a young girl named Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, who’s so natural here that you quickly forget you’re not just watching a documentary about children). Moonee is six years old, and this world is what she knows, from the odd tenants of the hotel to the local businesses, and director Sean Baker and the film follows Moonee and her friends as they play, goof around, misbehave (in more mischievous ways than anything bad)…and really, that’s about as much plot as there is to the film. We see Moonee’s interactions with her mom, a single mom named Halley (Bria Vinaite, another newcomer, and another incredible and naturalistic performance) – the love between the two of them, the struggles Halley goes through to provide for the two of them, and the difficulties of their lives. And weaving in and out of their lives is the hotel supervisor, played by Willem Dafoe (guess what? It’s another incredible performance, this one reminding you that Dafoe is a truly great character actor and not just someone to be cast as an oddball).
And really, that’s about it, in terms of what happens. Yes, we catch glimpses of Halley’s struggles, and catch implications about the outside world intruding into these children running wild (and often unsupervised); yes, kids come and go in the hotel, Disney World looms nearby, and tourists come and go; yes, in some ways there’s a conclusion that’s more heartbreaking and heartfelt simultaneously than you probably expected. But by and large, Baker simply follows around Moonee and her friends as they play games, sneak into off-limits room, check out derelict condos, and get into the kinds of trouble you probably expect 6-year-olds without much supervision to get into.
But more than that, The Florida Project immerses us in this world, letting us see everything through the eyes of Moonee and her friends – unaware of the darkness of the world, unaware of their place in society, unaware of the judgment that so many people have for them, and instead just joyfully and anarchically running wild through their world. Whether they’re shouting at tourist-filled helicopters, marvelling at rainbows or fireworks, begging for ice cream, or just watching TV, there’s something wondrous about the way that The Florida Project slowly but surely lets you live in this world and its naturalistic, warm performances. It’s all too easy to forget that you’re watching a movie with The Florida Project; it’s so warm and natural that it feels like you’re just another inhabitant of this hotel, keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends. Even Dafoe, who’s just about the only major name of the film, loses himself in the world, giving a performance that gives you a peek into his warm heart without ever preaching about it or beating you over the head with it.
Yes, there are ideas and themes to The Florida Project that I love – acceptance, empathy, a glimpse of the difficulties of live among the working poor, and more. But more than any of that, I loved The Florida Project because it’s warm and loving and honest and human in a way that few films ever manage. It’s funny, it’s charming, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and storytelling. It’s my favorite film of 2017, and I can’t say enough great about it.