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Film Review: The Florida Project

Written by: Victoria Alexander | October 31st, 2017

Film Poster: The Florida Project
Film Poster: The Florida Project

Wonderful, endearing and creates a star out of a six-year old.

The industry standard, the hallowed three-part structure of a screenplay doesn’t hold any longer. The primary “Establishing Shot” orienting the audience to the where, the who and the what, has become – quite literally – obsolete.

Audiences are too savvy to wander into a theater not knowing at least if the movie is a drama or a comedy. Most times, the title will tell you its a slasher movie. And if you do sneak into a movie not knowing anything about it, you will immediately recognize the music which lets you know exactly what kind of movie you will be seeing.

What about the three-act structure? You’ve read the how to write a screenplay in three weeks books. The main character has to “arc” by facing and overcoming a challenge. There must be two “turning points.”

This is the first comment a colleague said to me walking out of the screening: “What is the story about? Nothing happens. Good luck writing a review of THE FLORIDA PROJECT.”

The screenwriters, Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, have taken the rule book of screenwriting and tossed it. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is not a studio film, so they were able to do it. There’s no villain. There’s no message. None of the characters want world peace. And bravo to them.

And praise must go to Willem Dafoe since I am sure he did not get his standard “quote.” Perhaps, Dafoe took the part before he realized he was going to be upstaged by his six-year old co-star.

Directed by Sean Baker, the most astonishing thing about the movie is the casting and the fact that nothing earth shaking happens. Life is like that. Sometimes it just goes on. Sometimes nothing happens. But that’s not what makes a good movie. We need drama! Does anyone die?

Baker gives us something else, insight into people not known for heroic deeds, overcoming a traumatic event, or a great love affair gone horribly wrong. There is no redemption in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.

Film Image: The Florida Project
Film Image: The Florida Project

What there is, and beautifully done, is show an aspect of life not generally shown. And it is delivered without judgment. No one in THE FLORIDA PROJECT seeks a better life, no one is sad or downtrodden or looking for help. They are simply living their lives. And we get to see an unvarnished, intimate look at the life of a young woman and her 6-year old daughter.

The film is set in an area of budget motels outside Theme Park Central in Orlando and right across from Walt Disney World. There are tourists coming and going but some families that have made these motels their home.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT centers around at the residents of the Magic Castle Motel managed by Bobby (Dafoe). Halley’s (Bria Vinaite) six-year old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) is a fearless, street-wise child. With her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera), they playfully harass the long-time resident of a motel across the road, The Futureland Inn.

Moonee and Scooty are caught spitting on a resident’s car, Halley is brought into a confrontation with the owner of the car, who is racing her six-year old granddaughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto).

The relationships are clearly established. Moonee is raising herself, Jancey has little supervision, and Scooty’s mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), helps Moonie and Halley by providing free waffles were she works. I guess its for Halley taking “care” of Scooty every day.

Everything about Moonee’s upbringing will horrify middle-class America. She is allowed to wander wherever she wants to. She can cross highways without an adult. She’s her mother’s co-worker as they hawk discount perfume to tourists leaving hotels. She’s got a language of a street walker and speaks her mind.

Moonee does not require any supervision, doesn’t have a curfew, goes out in the morning and returns whenever she wants to. She is completely independent. Bringing along Jancey to join her and Scooty, Moonee is the leader and the provocateur of mischief.

When Moonee initiates a dangerous game, Ashley, the only person with a job and responsibilities finds out about her son’s involvement, she ends her friendship with Halley and forbids her son to be around Moonee. Moonee has become just like her mother, dancing seductively and well aware of the necessity of getting by on a day-by-day basis.

Halley has a tough time making her weekly rent even with Bobby’s kindness and understanding. But when Halley is forced to take paying customers into her room, Bobby steps in. But there is only so much he can do.

As Halley’s behavior becomes more erratic, the looming threat of the all-powerful Child Protective Services presents itself. If Halley is not careful, what will become of Moonee?

The magical thing is, we know she will survive.

The spirit of resiliency is what makes THE FLORIDA PROJECT so engaging. These characters, written by director Baker with Chris Bergoch, do not feel themselves to be losers or non-productive members of society. They are living their lives in a society that does not admire or respect them, but they have accepted that their choices have led them where they are. Baker doesn’t feel sorry for them and neither do we.

Moonee has a life most children do not have anymore. She can explore, make her own decisions, get in trouble, and figure things out herself. Most children – even my own – are raised under a steel umbrella of security. I always knew where my son was.

Frankly, today, what six-year old do you see walking around without a parent? Social Services would be called immediately.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT shows segment of life in America that is rarely seen. No one is seeking help or food stamps or a religious organization’s handouts. Its a look at a part of life shown as realistically as possible.

The focus is on the two completely enchanting children, especially Prince – who is outstanding – instead of the rather sleazy aspects of someone like Halley. There is no cruel boyfriend, Moonee’s father is inconsequential, and Halley’s drug use in smoking pot, not meth. Even without lurid details of how Halley manages to get by, she would be considered a bad mother.

While the ending may be society finally paying attention, we know Moonee and Jancey will be just fine.

If indeed Vinaite was found on Instagram by Baker, she is wonderful. I believed her. I believed she lived in the motel. Her relationship with Prince was extraordinary.

I recall an interview with an anonymous producer discussing Quvenzhané Wallis who was five years old when she filmed BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Wallis eventually beat out 4,000 others for the role of Hushpuppy.

The producer, an Academy Award voting member, disregarded her sensational performance because he said that he knew all about the painful process directing children, saying that children must repeat each scene maybe hundreds of times before getting what the scene calls for. Knowing children, that made sense to me. But here, Prince seems so natural that it looks like the director just put the camera in the right place and his job was done.

Let’s hope Prince didn’t need multiple, agonizing takes.

And Dafoe? How absolutely wonderful of him to take this small but key role. His Bobby looks like he has seen people like Halley and Moonee all his life. They come, they go. How attached can he really get?

Dafoe actually struggled to move a refrigerator. He looked the part, he played the part. Dafoe clearly did not take the role for a few days pay. He probably was the only SAG actor in the film – so he might have been paid scale?


Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and answers every email at For a complete list of Victoria Alexander's movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes go to: Victoria Alexander contributes to Films in Review (, Film Festival Today ( and Las Vegas Informer (

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