While not a Disney movie, I thought it might be fitting to review The Florida Project given its close proximity and relevance to the Walt Disney World Resort community. (Note: This review may contain very mild spoilers).
Set in one of the colorful motels you may (or may not) have noticed while vacationing in Central Florida, The Florida Project follows the lives of a group of low-income residents of the Magic Castle. The film primarily focuses on a group of children who live at the motel, led by Moonee, a rambunctious six-year-old whose innocence despite her living situation helps to tie together the tone of the film. With the children being the focus, the audience is able to see what life is like for residents of the Magic Castle, but through their eyes. Where adults may seem depressed at their financial situation, the kids are still kids and they continue to make their own fun and adapt to whatever situations come their way.
In terms of talent, the real stars of the film are Bobby, the motel manager played by Willem Dafoe, and Moonee played by Brooklynn Prince. Dafoe’s character acts as a sort of father character to Moonee and the other kids, which is quite touching given that he does not need to go above and beyond with his job in such a manner, but he helps to take care of the whole community as if they were his own. All in all, the film does the storyline justice using beautiful cinematography and acting abilities to bring awareness to one of the most marginalized groups of Americans that is likely far too common (and underlooked) across the country, and not just in Central Florida.
For all of the charm and emotional value packed into the film, it is not without its shortcomings. I personally left the theater wanting more. While the flow of the plot succeeded for the majority of the film, the last 20 minutes or so were filled with the most action, which I felt left the conflict unresolved leaving me wanting more. I also wanted to see more of Dafoe’s character, as he appeared to grow more involved in taking care of the kids (especially Moonee) as the film went on, and it would have been nice to see more of that dynamic. Still, the setup of the film could have easily been an artistic decision that I’m not appreciating in the way the writers intended, which is not something that would stop me from recommending the film here.
My only other gripe with the film was that I left wanting the connection to the setting to be more obvious. Plenty of scenes showed the kids running by tacky “Disney” tourist shops, orange-themed attractions, the cows you can see from the highway, and more sites that I recognize as someone who once lived in the area. Even with the subtle references to vacationing tourists and the proximity of theme parks though, I’m not sure that the average non-Floridian viewer would understand how this whole situation is specific to this area. This gripe left me feeling disconnected from the final scene (SPOILER:) where Moonee on the brink of a meltdown after learning that child protective services will be removing her from her mother’s care, runs with a friend through the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps it was meant to be so obvious that it didn’t need to be said, but I’m not sure the symbolism behind this scene worked the way it was intended. I got the impression that the kids did not know what they were missing, and that they likely knew what the theme park were but they didn’t have enough of an understanding of them to feel like they were missing out by not going, and so ending the movie with the girls running through the park seemed to escalate quickly compared to the rest of the film.
Alternatively, I found the portrayal of the adults in the film to be rather refreshing. Many characters in film who fit the sort of “type” of person who would be living in a motel fall into the usual kinds of stereotypes that society commonly puts on lower-middle class people– that they’re addicted to drugs, or that they’ve made some horrible life decision that left them in this predicament. While we never learn much of the background of the characters, the work ethic of one mother and even Moonee’s mother’s desire to provide for her child are refreshing (albeit in the illegal and entirely inappropriate way she goes about making money). When it is suspected that drug deals are taking place at the motel, Bobby asks the guests to leave, and throughout the film we see Moonee’s mother and other parents doing what they can to put food on the table for the kids. Without the negative stereotypes you might expect to see, this makes the characters seem more relatable, and it makes the story that much more touching.
Even with the shortcomings and small issues I see with the film, I would still not hesitate to recommend it to someone looking to learn more about this community that faces hardships you may never know personally on an almost daily basis. The odd flow of the plot made me feel that the story would have worked better as a novel, and while it doesn’t necessarily seem like the kind of movie I need to see again I can’t help but recommend it. I would give The Florida Project an 82% ranking, with points earned for the emotional attachment you grow to have towards the characters, and the carefree vision of childhood despite a rather unfortunate upbringing, but points lost for the shaky plot and all-too subtle connection to the film’s local community.
If you haven’t already seen The Florida Project, I recommend checking for showtimes near you asap. As a more independent film I don’t expect it to be in theaters for long, and it may be difficult to track down once it’s pulled from theaters.