‘The Florida Project’ is an uneven but unforgettable look at childhood
There’s a moment in “The Florida Project” in which a little girl, no more than 7 or 8, stands under an overhang staring at the rain. The shot goes on for maybe five seconds, but it’s just enough to remind us how disappointing — how borderline calamitous — a rainy day seemed at that age, when you had big plans to spend the day running around outside.
“The Florida Project” is a very strong movie about what it’s like to be a little kid, the exuberance and freedom, the sense of excitement around every corner, and the vastness of single days. Childhood is the movie’s subject, in general terms. In specific terms, it’s about what it’s like to live in a motel in a rundown section of Orlando, close to the Magic Kingdom that is Disney, and to that other magical kingdom known as the American dream, and yet to be permanently and hopelessly outside of it.
This motel living is an aspect of American life that most of us know nothing about. In “The Florida Project,” young Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her mother, a heavily tattooed young woman named Halley (Bria Vinaite), but mostly spends her time as the ringleader of a group of other kids who engage in spitting contests and adventures to other motels and abandoned buildings in the area. The kids always seem to be having a good time.
The hotel manager has less fun. Played by Willem Dafoe (the only famous face in the movie), the manager spends his days dealing with difficult and angry tenants, bedbugs, safety violations, the police and with his own awareness that, for most of his residents, he is the bottom rung on the ladder. If he throws them out, or if they get themselves evicted through criminal activity, there’s nothing left but the street.
Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”) makes fine use of Dafoe’s gruff-saint quality, and the actor responds with a moving and complicated performance. The rest of the performances don’t seem like performances at all, but like artfully captured reality. Downright remarkable is first-time actress Vinaite, who really isn’t a single mother living in a motel in Orlando.
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That would seem obvious but actually comes as a surprise to those who’ve seen the film. As Halley, she is that raw and convincing, playing the character, not only with no judgment, but with the kind of abandon and misplaced vanity that a nonactor might have when playing herself.
Halley is the character we can’t stop thinking about, because we can’t come to a settled opinion (or perhaps judgment) of her. She is, in many ways, a person out of control and a disaster as a mother, except in the one way that would make her truly a disaster. She’s not unkind.
Her son and daughter really like being around her. She’s fun and accepting, and though she lets them get away with a lot, she’s not without a sense of moral responsibility. Vinaite makes all of this clear without seeming to be trying to do anything.
Like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, “The Florida Project” has a loose structure: It has a well-planned beginning and end, but a muddled middle. This results in an experience that is smooth sailing for the first 45 minutes, but then hits a slog that goes on for another 40, before the movie revives again in its last half hour. Obviously, a film can’t be great if you spend 40 minutes wishing the thing would end already.
At 95 minutes, “The Florida Project” could have been a masterpiece. As it stands, there’s a greatness in it, but also stretches of emptiness. Still, this is an original piece of work, and no one who sees it will forget it.