As the story goes, the seeds for The Florida Project were planted in the spring of 2011 as screenwriter Chris Bergoch drove through Orlando. He noticed a gaggle of local kids playing wiffle ball in motel parking lot and was instantly intrigued by the idea of these non-tourist children whiling away their days in the shadow of Disney World. He had just begun work on a script for the movie Starlet, which his former NYU classmate Sean Baker was directing, and when Baker heard about the kids, he was just as intrigued. They agreed, though, to shelve the idea for a bit. After the moderate success of Starlet and then the resounding success of their next joint feature, 2015’s Tangerine, The Florida Project was off and running.
Set in the real-life (yes, you can stay there) purple-painted Magic Castle Inn and Suites in Kissimmee, the movie follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends as they spend the summer just being carefree kids. The adults, meanwhile, are all irresponsible single parents living on welfare, manufacturing all sorts of ways to earn the weekly rent money. It’s a brilliantly scripted compare-and-contrast—when Mooney isn’t off scamming tourists to get a free ice cream cone, her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) uses her to sell marked-up wholesale perfume to tourists in a nearby resort parking lot.
The Florida Project plays like a documentary, presented in a series of quick-hit moments (Bobby leaf-blows the parking lot, the kids drink a soda in the breezeway) and deeper set pieces that combine to form a slice-of-life look at the same culture that fascinated Bergoch years ago. It may be short on plot (there really isn’t one), but it’s heavy on character development, setting, and production design; the purple hotel is its own character, as is the aura of decay and depravity from which the kids escape daily.
It also doesn’t shy away from presenting very serious (and very real) issues for these kids, including arson, prostitution, and even pedophilia. Baker and Bergoch, however, are never preachy and, even more surprisingly, not really even judgmental—they’re just showing the audience this world exists; draw your own conclusions.
Willem Dafoe, who plays Bobby the hotel manager, is the only face you’ll recognize (and his work here is the best he’s done in years), but the cast of The Florida Project proves you don’t need to be an A-lister (or even B- or C-lister) to turn in a memorable performance. Leading the way is Prince, who you might think is just being herself (a six-year-old kid) for the bulk of the movie, but that all changes as The Florida Project nears the finish line, when you realize this youngster has some bona fide talent. And though Vinaite has two or three moments that make you remember this is her first acting job, she gets stronger as the movie progresses, too.
It’s hard to say The Florida Project is a joy to behold (it’s difficult at times, downright depressing at others), and it’s not a movie that you would ever watch a second time. But it’s a beautiful piece of filmmaking about a decidedly unbeautiful slice of life.