Walt Disney World is located between the cities of Orlando and Kissimmee, Fla., places where America’s wealth disparity is egregious. The landscape on the outskirts of the Magic Kingdom is dotted with satellite tourist traps offering low-paying jobs for local residents, many of whom live transitory existences in cheap motels. It’s a testament to The Florida Project’s brilliance that it turns this bleak setting into a charming movie about lovable, troublemaking kids.
The film is told from the perspective of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old resident of the Magic Castle motel, during her summer vacation. Her unemployed single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) barely makes ends meet by peddling counterfeit perfume and, occasionally, through sex work.
Moonee fritters away the long summer days with other motel kids, getting up to wholesome activities like spitting on cars and mooching for ice cream, much to the chagrin of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the Magic Castle’s hapless manager.
The performances of the children in The Florida Project, and Prince in particular, are a filmmaking miracle. To employ some much-deserved hyperbole, hers is among the best, most naturalistic child performances ever committed to celluloid.
She injects the film with exuberant innocence, contagious humour and a radical spark of imagination. She perfectly embodies the way kids can make playtime out of anything.
The motel kids have, in material terms at least, nothing. But Moonee makes the highway strip of motels their own magic kingdom, the sidewalks and back lanes connecting them their private yellow brick road. She walks by the doors of each motel room and describes the sad sack lives of each resident. “This guy’s been in some wars. This guy has a disease that make his feet grow. This lady thinks she’s married to Jesus.” In her eyes, each of them becomes a mythical figure.
Underpinning this all is the sad reality of poverty, which Moonee only loosely grasps. She doesn’t see her mom as a deadbeat. Neither will the viewer, entirely, though Halley does present a difficult emotional knot for audiences to try and unravel. It’s not her fault she’s in a bad situation, but she’s far from making the best of it. She’s loving but profoundly neglectful.
When the real possibility of losing custody of Moonee arises, it’s a genuine conundrum for the audience. Moonee is happy and loves her life, but does that excuse the fact that Halley is undeniably a bad mom?
What little adult supervision there is comes from Bobby, a good-hearted fellow who’s always in a huff. He’s clearly a guy who signed up to manage a deceptively-named Disney-adjacent tourist motel, not run an unofficial housing project. Outwardly, he’s always annoyed by this. Inwardly, he truly cares for these kids.
Dafoe, an actor best known for big, eccentric performance, is doing some of his most subtle work here. Without ever verbalizing it, he shows the audience how these children’s poverty and uncertain future is slowly breaking his heart. If Moonee is The Florida Project’s heart, he’s its conscience.