Over the past few years, three small movies have miraculously captured the sheer essence of childhood. 2014’s Boyhood, which was actually shot over the course of 12 years, followed a character from age six to age eighteen. Last year’s Moonlight saw its protagonist evolve from a boy, to a teenager, to an adult. Unlike its predecessors, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project doesn’t cover a large fragment of time, limiting itself to one summer. During this brief period, however, the film will make any adult feel like a kid again.
That’s exactly what makes these films so fascinating. They’re largely about coming-of-age and childhood, but they weren’t made for children. They were explicitly made for grown ups with all three earning an R rating. Childhood is typically viewed as a more innocent chapter in our lives and to some extent it is. When you look back at your youth through a mature set of eyes, though, you start to realize that maybe childhood wasn’t all that innocent. It was actually pretty confusing, upsetting, and uncertain. In the midst of all the hardships, however, there are certain moments we’d give anything to recreate. The Florida Project in particular is full of moments like this.
Brooklynn Kimberly Prince couldn’t be more authentic as Moonee, a little girl who lives in a motel with her mother (Bria Vinaite). Although Moonee is more precocious than the average six-year-old, she can’t comprehend the fact that her mom is soliciting sex in order to keep a roof over their heads. Moonee is constantly causing trouble with her friends, spitting on cars, turning off the motel’s electricity, and running amuck. While they might be bratty, we can definitely understand why these kids are so mischievous, seeing how they don’t have the most attentive parental figures. The closest thing Moonee has to a responsible role model in her life is the motel owner, played by Willem Dafoe in a wonderful supporting performance. He’s often frustrated with Moonee and her mother, but will still stick his neck out for them.
As mentioned before, The Florida Project is all about little moments, as if they were ripped from a person’s memory. This is something that both Boyhood and Moonlight also pulled off flawlessly. Even when watching some of the greatest movies ever made, the audience is usually aware that they’re watching a movie. With these three films, though, it feels more like we’re watching a person’s life being projected on the screen. The performances are genuine, the writing is honest, and the direction is simple in all the right ways. We’ve been getting a lot of movies about nostalgia lately, but this trilogy of sorts takes it one step beyond, literally putting us in a child’s shoes.
While I personally think Boyhood and Moonlight are a little stronger, The Florida Project does an especially great job at balancing the wonder of childhood with the grim reality of childhood. Although Moonee doesn’t always realize it, her environment and the people inhabiting it are overflowing with problems. What makes this so ironic is that she lives only a few minutes away from The Happiest Place on Earth. The Florida Project was an early working title for the Walt Disney World Resort and references to the Mouse House are littered throughout the film. In between The Magic Castle Motel and The Magic Kingdom, there’s a hopeful rainbow that we all want to follow. In the end, The Florida Project leaves us with one undeniable truth: no matter how old you are, escaping to Disney World somehow makes everything better.