‘The Florida Project’ Review: A joyous, visually stunning playground of wonder and humanity

The Florida Project may follow six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her gang of friends at The Magic Castle, the cheap hotel they live at, but it’s truly one of the more hauntingly emotional films of the year.

And it’s a strange concoction that results in that. The film doesn’t shy away from or take shame in childhood, fully delving into the freedom, bliss and almost aimless wandering of young children to a point where the film becomes a free flowing journey that defies standard narrative conventions. Rather than try to make scenes with Prince and the other young actors adult friendly, the film truly comes at it from the perspective of Moonee, and realizes that there’s so much beauty in the eyes of children — that the world, even a run down motel, can become a grand playground, and not necessarily in stereotypically childlike ways. Shot with transfixing, mesmerizing, constant motion by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who lingers like Lubezki and tracks like Deakins, but almost always places us on a low angle next to the kids, The Florida Project is a visual wonder that embraces its greatest source of imagination.

Yet, co-writer, editor and director Sean Baker realizes that, despite there being a certain sense of innocence within them, children are never free of the difficulties of the world, especially those born in particularly difficult circumstances. Baker expertly layers the growing story of family struggle, always shown from the eyes of Moonee. We see scenes of loving connection, of joyful play — but as Moonee starts to confront more and more, while she may not realize it in full, there comes a point when we understand what’s been happening all along as most that view this film have the adult luxury of inference. It’s a harrowing approach, one that humanizes and empathizes with Moonee and her mother Halley, portrayed with bracing strength by Bria Vinaite. And that’s what elevates The Florida Project — empathy. The film never exploits its characters’ lives, but simply understands them and, in turn, portrays them both sensitively and candidly.

Playing the manager of The Magic Castle, Willem Dafoe is a massive source of empathy. He moves from stiff strictness to overwhelmed frustration to soft, deep care in a way that’s somehow so subtle, yet something we can still feel throughout.

But surprisingly, Dafoe’s performance, despite warranting all the awards talk that he’s getting, is not the biggest one of note in The Florida Project. It’s Brooklynn Prince’s. It’s understandably difficult for young actors to fully envelop themselves in roles, but Prince gives every ounce of herself over to this film. It’s from her that we get the sense of wonder and joy in childhood — her energy infectious and singular and so real. It’s from her that we confront sobering truths. In the final minutes, Prince delivers a scene of emotion that is quite genuinely arresting, that takes the weight of the entire story and lays it bare with an overwhelming vulnerability. Baker composes his climactic moment with such expert, dynamic editing. But Prince is the one who causes this scene’s humanity to reverberate from the screen and dig into our bones. It’s an accomplishment that can’t properly be described, and something even more jaw-dropping when realizing that this is a seven-year-old actress we’re watching.

The Florida Project may be film’s pinnacle representation of childhood. It presents both its most wonderful qualities, without indulging, and its most genuine truths, without exploiting. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen.

Grade: A


Featured image via A24.

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