CREDIT: Marc Schmidt/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Brooklyn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera

Director: Sean Baker

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Potty Mouth, a Few Scrapes, Discreet Sex That Doesn’t Stay Hidden, and An Impromptu Use of a Tampon

Release Date: October 6, 2017 (Limited)

I have frequently wondered how people with a thin personal economic safety net stake their place in the world. It’s such a different life than I know that it might as well be on a separate plane of existence entirely. But it is not absolutely foreigg. We all do what we must to survive, and we’re all wired to find fun where and when we can. But there are certain realities of a capitalist society that make any sense of a satisfactory life illusory. I firmly, theoretically, believe that material possessions are not the ultimate source of happiness, but I recognize that in practice, lack of material goods is the cause of a lot of hardship. The Florida Project is a portrait of such an existence, and thus it is a stressful watch, though I am happy to have seen it.

The marketing for The Florida Project is a lot more unfailingly happy-go-lucky than the actual film. The trailer and poster are not outright lies, as indeed a group of cute little kids do run around having the time of their lives and Willem Dafoe is more adorably gruff than hardass grump. But an overarching grim context is inescapable. Perhaps there is a concerted point in putting the film’s peppiest step forward, as it takes place in Kissimmee, Florida, not too far from Orlando. Head beyond that city’s tourist mecca, and you might just be a little less inclined to still call this land “the happiest place on Earth.”

The Magic Castle Motel may be a purposeful misnomer intended to lure in a few gullible tourists and also self-delude its longtime residents, but try telling that to 6-year-old Mooney (Brooklyn Kimberly Prince) and her best friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Mooney knows that she and her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) don’t exactly have a lot of money (that is, when they have any at all), but she still knows how to spend a hell of a day, like by sneaking around an abandoned building or scrounging up cash for ice cream (by pretending to have asthma that can only be relieved by ice cream). And hey, soliciting secondhand goods in a hotel parking lot with Mom is a lot of fun, too!

But when The Florida Project delves into the less savory ways in which Halley gets by, it’s a little harder to say that everything is copacetic. Questions that society really needs to grapple with become to impossible to ignore. When living in poverty is so expensive, how can you expect a young adult on waiting lists for every legitimate job not to turn to illegal ventures? And when those ventures become serious enough for social services to get involved, is the best solution really removing a child from a loving, non-abusive parental relationship? A lot of this grappling within the narrative falls upon motel manager Bobby (Dafoe in a role tailor-made for him), who is alternately a father figure, taskmaster, guardian angel, and just human. Written all over the lines of his face is the thesis of the film: this is all too intense to fully make sense of, but someone (but really, everyone) needs to live in it.

The Florida Project is Recommended If You Like: American Honey, A Little Princess, Boyhood

Grade: 4 out of 5 Cussing Kids