Review: Profoundly Beautiful ‘Florida Project’ is One of the Year’s Best Films

Utterly heartbreaking and gracefully raw, A24’s latest gem is not to be missed.

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

At one point during The Florida Project, the lead character Moonee (a six-year-old girl played by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her new friend look outward at a rainbow that arches over the extended-stay motel where they live. This scene where Moonee and her friend look at one of nature’s most beautiful sights is the perfect metaphor for Sean Baker’s latest film. Moonee and her friends muster up illusions of happiness and joy as they break through the light in such colorful ways to overcome the reality of a welfare-dense area within walking distance of Disney World, which has been called the happiest place on earth.

As captivatingly radiant as it is saddening, The Florida Project follows Moonee and her friends during the summer days in and around The Magic Castle Motel, which managed by Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe). Sure, the story in Florida Project isn’t groundbreaking, but that’s not what makes it so wondrous and harrowing. Watching kids make the best of a down-on-their-luck scenario they can’t fully comprehend, all while their parents struggle to provide for them feels so relatable – especially when you think about all the other areas in the country where poverty is high. As someone who has a special place in their heart for children who live in such unfortunate situations, one scene near the end of the film, had me tearing up. At times, The Florida Project is not an easy watch, where you might find your heart sinking to the floor as you wish you could help the characters with the struggles they go through. But at the same time, it’s as authentic as any movie you’ll see this year, with the scenarios presented are either delightful or heart-rending.

Authenticity in The Florida Project comes largely from the movie’s memorable characters that result in heartfelt performances that are sure to garner plenty of awards talk throughout the fall. Front and center for most of The Florida Project is Brooklyn Kimberly Prince as Moonee, who is hard not to fall in love with as soon as we see her on the screen for the first time. Full of sass, energy, and wit, Prince arguably gives the best performance as a child actor in a movie since Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. Parenting (when she’s there) Moonee is her mother Halley, played by Bria Vinaite. You might wind up hating Halley, but you ultimately understand that she is only trying to do what’s best in order for her and her daughter to survive week after week. And finally, veteran (and beloved) actor Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the motel where Moonee and Halley stay. Acting like an angel in the shadows or a surrogate father of sorts, Dafoe’s sensitive, yet graceful performance is one of the best of his career; and right now, I’d say he’s a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s Oscars.

The Florida Project feels like this year’s Moonlight (which also happens to be an A24 release); it’s a bittersweet story that’s not often told on film, but it’s certainly an important one that’s worth your time. Baker, who made the 2015 stylistic Tangerine, gives us a clear reminder of the vivid society we live in now with The Florida Project. Sure, we might live within walking distance of what we deem as “happiness,” but we also live in a world where there’s enough adventure to let our imagination run wild, and where in the end, any bleak situation can be outshined by the warmth and radiance we give off, just like Florida Project’s flawed, yet empathetic characters do in the film’s sunshine state setting.

The Florida Project is now playing at The Belcourt Theatre here in Nashville. You can purchase your tickets here.