All I knew about the film "The Florida Project" was that it chronicled the lives of motel dwellers, people too poor to pay a month's rent, but able to pay week to week. I imagined this film would be rather solemn and sorrowful, but it's not. It bursts forth from the opening scene with the chutzpah and brashness of those for whom it is imperative to hustle for their next meal. It is also suffused with the contentment of those who can only afford life's simple pleasures.
The joy in the film is provided by the protagonist, a little six-year-old upstart girl named Moonee who is as feral and mouthy, tough and vulgar as her young, tatted, rainbow-haired, party girl single Mom. But Moonee is not the only wild youngster left to fend for herself most of the day during summer vacation on and around the grounds of the purple "Magic Castle"--a motel near Disney World. The motel is a bit of a paradise for kids to be kids. Moonee and her merry ragamuffins have very little money or gadgets. They incessantly chatter to each other and scream and laugh and know everyone's business and roam about and pull pranks and taunt grown-ups.
The way this film is shot is unique, unusual, but with a non-pretentious indie air. There are lots of long shots and establishing shots of the colorful and fanciful buildings and architecture on the tourist-trap strip where Moonee lives. The acting is a kind of "direct cinema" at its finest. Especially this little girl. This extraordinary little ingenue. You can't even call her a great little actress. She is somehow real, breaking through the fourth wall at every turn. One scene of her in a bathtub (where she is forever shampooing her toy horse's and doll's hair) makes us believe we are seeing the real Brooklynn Prince (the name of this child actress) who has perhaps forgotten that the camera was left running. The other children too, while we sometimes catch them acting, we catch them having immediate emotions and reactions even more often.
Willem DaFoe plays the kind-hearted but firm-handed motel manager who often finds himself doing double duty as watchful parent to the herd of little banshees and troublemakers. The fact that these kids spend long hours unsupervised, with nary an adult in sight is quite discomfiting. We're just waiting for something bad, really bad to happen.
Moonee's mother is pretty terrible with the parenting skills, but she certainly teaches her daughter survival skills. Not only that, she truly loves and enjoys her child--playing with her with abandon, like a kid herself. But Mom's life is also a risky one, always one wrong move away from the brink of disaster. Is it better that Moonee be taken away and put into the dreaded "system"? Or is it better for kids to be with their birth parents if at all possible--albeit with much support and oversight from child welfare services? That seems to be the question of this mesmerizing film, "The Florida Project." Six-year-old Moonee seems to answer it for us.
(It's rated "R," most likely for the myriad F-bombs and other language. Otherwise, it could be PG-13.)