In discussions about books, we often spend some time talking about point of view. In a book, point of view is usually pretty easily identifiable, and whether or not you study it – or even notice it – it has an impact on a story: first person perspective is very different from third person omniscient. We don’t think as much about the impact of point of view on movies, but films like The Florida Project demonstrate why we should.
Broadly, The Florida Project is an observation of working poverty just outside “the happiest place on Earth” – Disney World. But what resonates about the story is that it’s told primarily through the view of Moonee, a six-year-old who is both weary and innocent enough to thrill in hearing the choppy sound of her own voice through an electric fan.
Normally, this is the part of a review where you’d get a plot rundown, but The Florida Project feels more like a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of a handful of people navigating housing insecurity, than a film with a clearly defined narrative arc. Things happen, and eventually the story zeroes in on Moonee’s mother Halley’s need to scramble when her previous methods of making ends meet hit a dead end, but above all, this is a character-driven film.
If the term “character-driven” sets off warning bells in your head, you’re not alone – I love plot and twists and action in movies so much that sometimes I don’t care if I don’t even understand what’s happening just as long as something is moving. But in this case, even I was enthralled. Co-writer/director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch (who worked together on 2015’s Tangerine) have created characters so compellingly human that The Florida Project is engaging throughout most of its nearly two hour running time.
The characters couldn’t be so compelling without strong acting, and The Florida Project has that across the board. Willem Dafoe is playing against type as Bobby, the motel manager walking the line between satisfying his boss and providing his own version of social work for the unofficial residents who largely make up his own personal community. It would have been easy for the character to veer into sentimental territory, and it’s to Dafoe’s credit that he never does. Bria Vinaite’s Halley is the perfect foil for Bobby as a self-destructive anti-heroine. Halley is infuriating as often as she’s sympathetic, and Vinaite infuses her with a magnetism that makes her occasionally likeable.
But it’s Moonee that anchors the film, and seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince gives a stand out performance in the role. Despite her savvy and independence, Moonee still feels very much like a kid: she can appreciate the beauty of a rainbow and talk about punching leprechauns all in one breath. Both the writing and the direction lend authenticity to all of the scenes with kids in the film, from the way they talk over each other to the “safari” they go on to find cows. Baker and Bergoch never let us forget that despite their vulnerable circumstances and the sometimes gritty environment in which they live, these are kids who have jelly and syrup high on their lists of priorities.
In fact, the way the film starts to veer away from Moonee’s point of view is to its detriment. Even in seeing the action unfold from her perspective, the audience has enough context to understand the layers of the story that she doesn’t, and it would have been more interesting to stay consistently in Moonee’s third person limited perspective than to lose that subtlety and shift into overt dialogue about what’s happening in Halley’s life.
Still, it’s rare to get a film that tells the story of people living on the edge in quite this way, and Baker has done it in a way that feels so real, it almost seems like a documentary at times. The Florida Project is very good all around, and it’s at its best when we’re seeing the story through Moonee’s eyes.