Movie review: 'The Florida Project'

Brad Keefe

We go to movies to feel things. Laughter. Sadness. Fear. Thrills. Distraction.

There are few movies in 2017 that hold as wide a range of emotional resonance as “The Florida Project,” and it'll surely land on my list of the year's best films.

(Author's note:“The Florida Project” was originally slated to open this weekend in Columbus, but now the opening date has been pushed back a week. I assure you it's worth the wait.)

The movie is director Sean Baker's follow-up to 2015's excellent “Tangerine,” a DIY transgender comedy-drama that was noted for being shot almost entirely on iPhones. That film got buzz for its unique creation, but it was the storytelling that elevated it.

The same is true of “The Florida Project,” although neither has what would be considered a traditional narrative.

The setting is summer in the strange region of the Florida that lives on the outskirts of Disney World. It's an economy dependent on the scraps from Disney tourism. This is what trickle-down economics looks like.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a precocious 6-year-old who lives with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a roadside motel called the Magic Inn & Suites. It's populated with occasional tourists but mostly more-permanent residents.

Moonee's world is mostly one of joyful shenanigans, despite the economic realities of her situation. She and her friends find ways to bide time within their means, which include spitting on cars from a balcony and hustling for change to buy ice cream, as well as some activities that are more destructive.

The manager of the motel is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who alternates turning a blind eye and keeping watch over the kids in the complex. He's also got a front-row seat for the sort of hustling Halley does to pay the rent.

The pastel-painted stucco motels are a familiar sight in this part of Florida, but the stories contained within aren't the kind we see often onscreen.

“The Florida Project” is a story of poverty in America, but it's also largely a joyful one. Thanks to a superb performance by young Prince as Moonee, we see much of this world through a child's eyes, and it's not that bad.

This focus also increases the impact in moments that take a darker turn, and the final act is an emotional gut punch. Dafoe gives one of the best performances of his career, and one with more warmth and heart than he typically gets to explore.

It's yet another great indie distributed by A24 Films and surely one of the best films of the year.

“The Florida Project”

Opens in Columbus November 3

5 stars out of 5