Arts movie review

Brooklynn Prince: A new kind of ‘Disney’ Royalty

Sean Baker’s third film, The Florida Project, breaks down the facade of sunny central Florida and leaves viewers with a thought-provoking message about the dark truth of childhood poverty

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto
Rated R, Now Playing

The Florida Project opens on three young children joyfully yelling in front of a vibrant purple wall. This initial scene then segues smoothly into the opening title sequence as Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” plays in the background. Judging from the first scenes alone, it certainly seems as though Sean Baker’s third film, The Florida Project, will be an upbeat film following the adventures of three hyperactive children. However, as The Florida Project progresses, the joyful facade degrades to reveal a darker, more profound message about childhood poverty.

The Florida Project follows the summer of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her childish, rough-around-the-edges mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a rundown motel, The Magic Castle, a paltry fill-in for Disney World, located on the outskirts of the real thing. Much of the movie depicts the shenanigans of Moonee and her two friends, Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera). The trio wreaks havoc in the hotel complex that they call home. Together, they are caught spitting on cars from the third story overhang, begging for money outside a local ice cream store, and playing hide-and-seek in manager Bobby’s (Willem Dafoe) office. Meanwhile, Halley struggles to make ends meet for her daughter. Gradually, she resorts to prostitution in an attempt to provide for her daughter and herself. Throughout the film, Baker touches on key themes of poverty and single parenthood, providing a glimpse into what unfiltered and uncontrolled childhood truly looks like.  

Baker highlights these themes by including thoughtful cinematic touches throughout The Florida Project. One notable detail is a helicopter noise motif during pivotal scenes, such as when Bobby saves the children from a paedophile and when Halley and Moonee are forced to move out of the hotel for a night to avoid declaring residency at the Magic Castle. In addition, Baker emphasizes a sharp contrast between the bright colors of central Florida and the gritty poverty in Moonee’s life. Outside, the world is drenched in sunshine and coated in bright pastels. Inside the hotel room that Moonee and Halley call home, it is dimly lit, gritty, and filthy. One scene even depicts Moonee wiping her greasy fingers on her pillow case after eating a pizza dinner in bed.

However, The Florida Project’s powerful message is slightly undermined by a weak performance from lead actress Vinaite. With the exception of the penultimate, heart-wrenching scene that Vinaite masterfully executes, her acting leaves something to be desired. However, both Defoe and Prince give spectacular performances. Defoe carries the film with his tough exterior persona and soft, caring interior, which radiates the love he feels towards Halley and Moonee. Prince perfectly portrays a child with an absentee mother and an infinitely long leash. Her crude and uncensored humor both entertains and further drives home the ramifications of a childhood filled with minimal supervision and little to no discipline. At times, the humor distracts from the harsh reality of Moonee and Halley’s situation. The audience members frequently find themselves laughing at scenes that would be disturbing in real life, such as a six-year-old’s overuse of curse words and vandalization of private property. Moonee’s rough humor occasionally does too good a job of making the reality of her circumstances easier to swallow and desensitizes what is, in reality, a devastating situation.

Overall, The Florida Project is definitely worth the watch. What could have been a slow-moving plot centered around everyday life is carried by strong performances from breakout child star Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe. The thought-provoking film, culminating in a chaotic and disjointed final scene at the real Disney World, lifts the veneer of the “happiest place on Earth” and sheds a darker light on the devastating childhood poverty that exists in America.