By all accounts, 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the heroine of Sean Baker’s remarkable The Florida Project, should not be having a happy childhood. She lives with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), barely out of her teens herself, in a seedy motel in the shadow of Disney World. The motels and businesses in this tacky stretch of strip malls and tourist traps have names like Futureland and Magic Castle and Orange World, intentionally meant to evoke (and in some cases be confused with) the actual child’s paradise a mile or so away. Halley is a dope smoker, a petty thief, a hustler, selling perfume knockoffs and anything else she can swipe on the streets, and she brings her daughter with her, because Moonee’s cuteness helps seal the deal. When things get truly desperate, Halley turns tricks in her motel room.
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No, it’s not a recipe for a happy childhood and yet Moonee is happy. She sees the series of motels as her own personal playground, with best friends, including Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera)—also children of broken families and poverty—as her co-conspirators. They run around freely, breaking into abandoned rooms and buildings; scamming for free ice cream at the local soft serve; spitting on cars in the parking lot to see who has the best aim—all done with an incredible sense of mischief and discovery and fun.
And while Halley is no one’s idea of a stable mother, she loves her daughter, and protects her the best way she can. Because Halley is so young herself, she takes great pleasure in her daughter’s sassiness, even egging it on. Together, they have burping contests and pizza parties and tickle fights in the rain.
Brooklynn Prince, the young actress who plays Moonee, is an absolute discovery—naturally funny and impish with an impeccable sense of comic timing. One of the best things about Moonee—and Sean Baker’s film in general—is that she is actually funny, not just “kids say the darndest things” funny. She’s a pint-sized card. The film is enormously respectful of her, well, personhood.
The Florida Project will make you giggle in delight as you watch over Moonee’s antics, but it’s also, of course, despairingly sad. Because if the film demonstrates the joy and adaptability of childhood, it also makes it abundantly clear that this is no way for a child to live. At one point, an apparent child molester has to be ushered off the motel property by the dutiful and all-seeing manager (Willem Dafoe, in a deeply touching performance); at another point Moonee and her friends accidentally set a fire; once you find out why Moonee has been spending more time in the bathtub, playing with her dolls with her headphones on, your heart will break in two. We know that Moonee and Halley’s way of life is unsafe, unsustainable—so we wait for the other shoe to drop.
The Florida Project is a truly humane, spirited, and respectful film about the resiliency of children—and people for that matter. It’s the happiest sad film I’ve ever seen.