The Florida Project is one of this year’s best films, a remarkable slice of life set in and around a motel on the fringes of Orlando, Florida. Here, little kids with no adult supervision find ways to amuse themselves day after day. While their parents struggle to survive and pay the rent, they always find things to occupy themselves, whether it’s admiring a rainbow, encountering farm animals, or begging strangers for money to buy ice cream. Some of their mischief gets out of hand, but there are few if any repercussions in their insular world.
Filmmaker Sean Baker caused a sensation with his last feature, Tangerine (2015), a compelling fly-on-the-wall narrative that was shot entirely on iPhones. His new movie may have more money behind it but retains an extraordinary feeling of reality, chronicled by an invisible onlooker. The Florida Project is a deeply emotional film anchored by the great Willem Dafoe as the manager of a purple-colored motel who pretends not to care about his tenants (especially the children) although he actually does. His attachments cause him nothing but grief, yet he just can’t help himself.
Baker captures the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, focusing on a precocious six-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who has no sense of right and wrong. No wonder: her single mother (Bria Vinaite) is rude and crude, a scam artist and habitual liar who will do just about anything to scrape together enough money to get by. Moonee has seen and heard things no child should be exposed to, but this is the only life she’s ever known.
The Florida Project may have occasional lulls but somehow they add to the feeling of verisimilitude, as one day melts into the next and the characters we get to know live out their lives. The screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch takes us on a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Some of the vignettes are surprisingly moving and the film builds to an emotional crescendo that I found shattering.
If ever there were a sleeper deserving of wide recognition, this is it. And how can I not admire a film that, in the closing credits, acknowledges its debt to the Our Gang comedies and their creators, including Spanky McFarland. Those Little Rascals never explored the R-rated world depicted here, but there is a definite connection…and little Brooklynn Prince would have been right at home alongside Spanky.