'The Florida Project' is a rich tale of childhood poverty in America

Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince

Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince Photo by Marc Schmidt, courtesy of A24

Sean Baker finds his groove in the margins. In general, indie filmmakers set their sights on novel stories, but Baker’s ability to relate those niche topics to a broader audience and make them accessible is what really sets him apart as a director.

2015’s Tangerine told the tale of a trans sex worker on a mission to track down her cheating boyfriend/pimp. It was not the most universal story, yet Baker—and the film’s phenomenal cast—made Tangerine one of the most compelling and humanistic movies of the year.

In The Florida Project, he takes his skill set to the Magic Castle, a dilapidated motel on the literal margin of an Orlando highway. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in one of the rooms. Halley hasn’t been getting many solid shifts stripping, so she hustles to make ends meet: selling wholesale perfume to guests of nice hotels, unloading stolen Disneyland Magic Bands, anything to make another week’s rent.

While mom gets stoned and tries to get by, daughter runs the strip causing mischief with the other motel kids: spitting on cars, hustling in her own fashion to get ice cream, accidentally burning down an abandoned building. She’s a sweetheart at her core, and mom means well, but a widespread lack of supervision and consequences enables the kids to get up to no good.

The plot is humble in scope, functioning more as summer snapshot than a grand, arcing narrative. But as Halley becomes more desperate, The Florida Project digs deeper into issues of poverty and its effects on both parents and children, illuminating the lives of those Baker calls “the hidden homeless.”

As with Tangerine, the cast proves crucial here. Baker likes hiring inexperienced actors, and perhaps his most considerable strength as a director is his ability to identify great untapped talents (Vinaite was discovered via Instagram) and bring out their full potential. Willem Dafoe, who plays Magic Castle manager Bobby, is probably the only person you’ve ever heard of in this movie. And as good as Dafoe is, he’s overshadowed by the newcomer leads.

There’s obviously some risk in using non-professional actors, but in the case of The Florida Project, it works so well you sometimes forget that what you’re watching is fiction. Vinaite is impressive and convincing in her first outing, whether she’s partying with her friend from downstairs or treating her kid to what small pleasures she can. She’s no one-trick pony.

But Brooklynn Prince is the real show-stealer. It would be a feat for any actor to run the gamut of emotions as deftly as she does, but the fact that she is six years old makes the performance all the more jaw-dropping. She can make you laugh with some rude remark one minute and have you crying along with her the next. She can ham it up as needed but also astounds with her subtlety. It’s a first-class showing from a kid who seems destined to be a star.

The Florida Project is a success through and through. The performances are so genuine and pure, it’s impossible not to get pulled into the picture—and into the margins, where maybe the hidden homeless won’t stay hidden forever.

The Florida Project
Directed by Sean Baker
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema