Is summer any better than when you’re seven years old? Remember panhandling for change to buy an ice-cream cone? Or shutting down the power for the low-rent motel just outside of Disney World where you live? Oh, and what about that time you burnt a condo project down!? Man, talk about innocence lost. We were such babies.
While most viewers won’t share elementary-age exploits as extreme as those of Jancey (Valeria Cotto), Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), the vague themes of freedom and mischief they exemplify are likely to resonate with all of us on some level. Yet, for the pint-sized protagonists of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, their destructive deeds are of a piece with their station in life. They live on the margins of society, so watching them behave only marginally well is fitting—or so it seems we are meant to believe. And this is what’s wrong with The Florida Project.
By contrast, the best part of the film are its performances. The three children are so natural in their interactions that their authenticity pervades the whole movie. And Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the motel manager, as “put-upon but caring” with aplomb. Dafoe is an expert actor, and it’s nice to see him in a role where he’s actually restrained. And who is this Bria Vinaite? She arguably makes the film as Moonee’s mom Halley, who works as a prostitute, and get this—she had never acted at all prior to The Florida Project. Baker found her on Instagram and offered her the role after meeting with her. It turns out he put Vinaite through a bit of an acting boot camp, but it still boggles the mind how little we see her strain in even the most crucial of scenes. You could be forgiven for believing it’s her life we’re watching, not just a performance.
The kids go about their summer wildness unencumbered until the aforementioned arson. At that point, Scooty’s mom Ashley (Mela Murder) forbids him from spending any time with Jancey and Moonee. When Moonee shows up at the restaurant where Ashley works, looking for her customary helping of free waffles via the backdoor, Ashley turns her away and Halley is characteristically apoplectic. We’ve watched Halley thumb her nose at convention and authority at every turn throughout the movie. She’s a chronic thief, an inveterate liar, and has begun to wage a campaign to turn their motel into a trap house. She doesn’t even have the decency to meet her johns at a neutral location; she just puts Moonee in the bathtub while they’re in flagrante, which sums up her qualities as a mother. She can’t be bothered to remember where her daughter is all day long, but keeps her literally five feet away while she prostitutes herself.
The closest recent comparison to The Florida Project is American Honey. The irony is that American Honey wasn’t explicitly about America’s underclass, and, in sticking to more broadly relatable themes like leaving home and discovering one’s sexuality, it succeeded in crafting a better, more honest portrait of poor, unsettled young people. So much of what happens in The Florida Project is so extreme that it ends up being about extreme behavior, yet these people exist at every level of society, not just the one shown in the movie. In fact, Halley’s behavior resembles that of a spoiled one-percenter much more than that of a flawed single mother perpetually trying to pay the rent. It’s a laudable goal to depict a segment of society that often struggles to make their plight known, and it’s not as though the characters in The Florida Project should have been saints. But it’s a serious offense to their dignity to suggest that frustration with economic oppression necessarily manifests as crudeness and belligerence.