When Boyhood came out in 2014, critics revered it as a film that accurately—and meticulously—depicted a young person’s life. Well, not all childhoods are idyllic. Despite a distinct lack of gimmicks and a far more depressing setting, it now has some serious—and necessary—competition from the unflinching The Florida Project.
For the film’s first 30 minutes or so, we follow Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends as they romp through the central Florida landscape without a care in the world. Their adventures are mostly innocent: begging for change outside an ice cream store, spying on fellow hotel residents who tan in the nude. Their lives don’t seem perfect, but we’re reminded of how resilient kids are; they make it work.
Then writer-director Sean Baker inserts Halley (Bria Vinaite) into the picture. She’s Moonee’s mom, and struggling to make ends meet. She’ll buy perfume wholesale and then sell it outside swanky hotels; she’ll steal Disney armbands from strange men and offer them up at a discount. She adds a darkness to the proceedings almost immediately; Moonee’s adventures are far less enjoyable when you realize who is taking care of her.
To Baker’s credit, Halley has more depth than the typical deadbeat parent. Though her and her daughter are struggling, it’s clear that most of Halley’s bad decisions come from wanting to be something of a proper provider. Plenty of mothers and fathers have been portrayed as uncaring fuckups; Halley is a fuckup, for sure, but for decent reasons.
Of course, that doesn’t make it right. Baker proves resolute in starting us off with a smiling, unbothered Moonee who slowly—perhaps innately—starts to understand that her mother is making bad choices. Our delayed realization as to why Moonee spends so much time in the tub is both predictable and jarring; we know Halley is fucking up but you refuse to believe she’d go that far, until the door busts open and you’re left with no other alternatives.
There aren’t enough positive words to describe what Brooklynn Prince does in this film. Her child costars Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera are impressive in their own right, but Prince carries nearly the entire movie on her back. I don’t quite understand how someone so young can grasp the complexity of a role like this, but Prince carries a perfect and unique mix of childlike maturity into every scene she’s given. She’s a godsend.
And it would be disingenuous to ignore Willem Dafoe’s work here. Baker was praised after his breakout Tangerine but isn’t exactly an industry titan; having a pro like Dafoe sign on must’ve meant the world to this production. It’s the perfect role for the 62-year-old actor: a minor hero who aggressively boots a likely pedophile from the premises but falls in line when hotel rules require him to toe the line or eject unruly patrons. He’s kind but not quite good; it’s a brilliant use of Dafoe’s pleasant but creepy menace.
The Florida Project doesn’t probe into why or how its characters came to be in this situation; it eschews a political agenda to present a reality for many Americans, and tell a story that could impact anyone in that situation. That all sounds simple on paper, as did Boyhood, but not many films offer this level of authenticity and honesty. Sean Baker isn’t here to solve problems; he’s here to shine a light on a lower-class reality that many would rather ignore. When you’re this talented, no gimmicks are needed.