By Andrew Cripe, Movie Critic
“The Florida Project” is a special, chaotic, beautiful film. Director Sean Baker doesn’t take his audience’s attention for granted by giving them something sappy or conventional. Instead, he delivers an emotionally complex powerhouse of a film, one that is strikingly honest, brutally funny, and overwhelmingly relevant.
Is this one of the best films of the year? Absolutely, but it is also one of the most important. This is a depiction of poverty that is so unforgettable it ranks with Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” (1955) and Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978) as one of the best narrative films made about the subject.
The film tells the tale of a little girl, Moonee (Brooklynn Pierce), and her adventures in an extremely poor district of Florida during her summer vacation. Moonee lives in a last-resort style motel with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who has to find increasingly desperate ways of paying rent. While she works, Moonee spends her days supervised by neighbors and the motel’s landlord, Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is Moonee’s outlook on life. No part of her condition depresses or frustrates her and that isn’t just because she’s too young to understand what she’s going through; she treats life like an adventure and escapes into the worlds she creates with her friends.
Moonee is blissfully unaware of the chaos she is living in. Even as her behavior becomes reckless, she remains totally lovable. Actress Brooklyn Pierce brings the film moments of unforgettable hilarity, sometimes just through her expressions and natural reactions to the everyday absurdity of life.
This is one of the most unique and captivating child performances you’ll see and you’ll want to tell everyone to go and see it just to observe Pierce’s borderline feral genius.
As Halley, Bria Vinaite is also brilliant. While she may seem like a caricature at first, the performance eventually evolves into a complex and heart-wrenching portrait of humanity in disarray. Halley adores Moonee, and part of the film’s devastation lies in her discovering that she is creating a toxic atmosphere for the person she loves most.
Willem Dafoe, who is being falsely advertised as the lead of the film (Pierce is the real star here), delivers a compassionate performance as a man who wants to help Halley and Moonee, but can’t risk his job for them. The distance he is forced to create between him and the people he inherently cares about adds a punishingly bleak but true layer to the story.
Baker, who also co-wrote the film with Chris Bergoch, borrows the barebones filmmaking sensibilities from his previous film “Tangerine” and combines them with something entirely new, different, and original. Baker strings scenes together with poetic attention, allowing every moment to breathe and realize itself.
He has crafted a lived-in environment that can be found by any audience member if they look hard enough. There isn’t a second of “The Florida Project” that is exaggerated or cartoonish; the world on display here exists, sometimes in our own backyards.
This movie has a pulse. It exists as a living, breathing work of art about one of the most distressing and helpless facets of humanity: poverty. The main goal of cinema is to immerse an audience in a different yet familiar world, and over time so many filmmakers have forgotten the power and responsibility that comes with developing a reality.
Baker bravely taps into the purity and honesty of humanity and shows it for everything it is. This isn’t a film that takes short cuts around pain and depravity, nor does it enhance or romanticize them for its own gain.
This film is a thunderous howl, a statement that films still have the power to make viewers better, more empathic people. In a society that wants the world of “The Florida Project” to be swept under the rug, it is every film-goer’s duty to seek it out.