Orlando has, for many years, been the home of Disney World, a locale often called The Magic Kingdom. Life, however, is anything but magical for the people who live on the outskirts of Disney World. The Florida Project takes a look at some of the people who live there over the course of a few months. The story focuses mainly on a six-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who spends her summer vacation from school participating in various activities with her friends, generally without parental oversight. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is unemployed and unable to find work. Some people who live there watch out the two, including Ashley (Mela Murder), mother to Moonee's friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and a waitress who sneaks them food. Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the hotel manager, has his hands full with Moonee, Scooty, and the some other kids who get into almost everything. Besides managing, he is also the chief maintenance man and rules enforcer.
The troubles start small for Moonee and Halley, but slowly grow. First, Moonee, Scooty, and their playmate Dicky (Aiden Malik) get caught spitting on a car belonging to Stacy (Josie Olivo), a tenant at a neighboring hotel. After Stacy pressures their parents to clean the car, which they do, Dicky gets grounded. Aa a result of this incident, Moonee meets a new playmate in Jancey (Valeria Cotto), one of Stacy's granddaughters. The perpetually nosy kids soon visit a nearby abandoned house. After breaking some things, Scooty produces a lighter and sets the house on fire. That causes a rift between Halley and Ashley, who no longer gives them food and bans Scooty from playing with the others. Halley tries selling perfume she has bought wholesale, but runs into trouble when she tries hawking it in a more affluent neighborhood. Halley then resorts to illegal activities to make the rent. Halley may think herself discrete, but the way she does these things get the attention of Bobby and others.
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I've not seen the other films of director and co-writer Sean Baker, but a quick look at his work shows that he focuses on the issues faced by some of the most impoverished and ignored people in society. Much of The Florida Project takes place at adjoining low-rent hotels called The Magic Palace and Futureland. The hotels may have Disney-sounding names and look attractive with their bright colors and pastels, but they are, in essence, housing projects. Halley and Moonee live at The Magic Palace, while Stacy and Jancey live at Futureland. Because of her past, nobody wants to take a chance on hiring Halley. Treats are few for the children, who resort to panhandling just to share an ice cream cone. Church groups come by regularly with food for the residents. Baker creates a sad, but interesting, portrait of people who have little. Moonee and her friends just want to be kids, and don't understand some of the trouble they cause. Halley and Ashley have a bit of a "not my kid" attitude regarding their children's misbehavior, which leads to a split between the families. The story sometimes moves a little too slowly, but the ending is the saddest part about the reality that is Halley and Moonee's life.
The film has standout performances from Dafoe, Prince, and Vinaite. Dafoe, as Bobby, is one of the few decent adults Moonee knows. When Moonee and her friends sneak into the utility closet and shut off the power, he quickly restores it, but never raises his voice to the children. He even confronts a man who approaches the kids in the hotel play area. He also knows he has a business to oversee, and saves his harsh words for Halley, who becomes a problem tenant. Prince sweetly flirts with trouble as Moonee, for he hasn't been taught much by her mother, and has no concept of consequences. She gets in less danger, though, when she plays with Jancey, as she finally meets a girl her age. Prince gives an unforced performance, making her more sympathetic and endearing than a big-budget movie might make her. Vinaite makes her screen debut here, showing a mix of rage and desperation as Halley, a troubled woman trying to avoid more trouble. With Moonee, Halley is both protective and defensive. She wants to be the best mother she can be, but she often chooses an easy path than a constructive one.
The Florida Project doesn't glamorize the way its characters live. Some of them not only struggle from paycheck to paycheck, but some have a hard time finding a place where they can earn a paycheck. A little girl and her mother face the latter situation in entirely different ways. This movie should give its viewers reason to think about the plight of people like Halley and Moonee and worry. Can a child who loves her mother find a different way to live when she gets older? Whether Moonee does or not, will others care?
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Florida Project 3.5 stars. A nearby place far beyond the reach of Mickey Mouse.