“Worldstar, bitches!” shouts Halley, mother of a young daughter, while filming a brawl in the parking lot of the Florida motel in which they live. No moment in my mind is a better representation of the world these characters inhabit than this moment. A moment, that taken out of context, would make you scowl at those standing around filming someone get the crap beaten out of them instead of calling for help, but it serves as appropriate punctuation for the lives that these people live. Following the plight of working homeless of central Florida—people that work minimum wage jobs and live in motels—The Florida Project is a moving, eye opening experience, casting a light on a group of people that many of us may not think even exists.
The Florida Project is not an easy watch. Story structure is fairly nonexistent, we are just tossed into this world and observe it for a little while. The characters can be frustrating to watch, adult and child alike. Mother Halley (perfectly portrayed by Bria Vinaite) curses in front of her daughter, teaches her to pawn stolen goods off on tourists, and lets her run off for hours on end without any supervision, among other things. But yet she sees herself as a good mother, trying to be her friend instead of a parent. We all know people like this and watching how she reacts to the punches thrown her way is both angering and sad.
Her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) has the wide eyed innocence of youth, unaware that her mother and surroundings are detrimental to her well being. Her eyes are our lens into this brightly colored yet sorrowful world just around the corner from Disney World. She is the heart of the film, the one you root for, the one who makes you cry as you witness her succumbing to her environment. That is, if you stick around long enough for the story to allow that to happen. This film grows slowly, taking its time to reach its emotional climax. Not everyone is going to make it there, or even be satisfied by the journey, but for those able to stick it out, and understand what The Florida Project is trying to accomplish, it is worth the wait.
There is no ending per se to be found here, the story of Halley, Moonee, and the others doesn’t end when the credits roll. You don’t get a nicely wrapped up conclusion, all you are left with are questions. Questions about what will become of these people, though deep down you probably already know. The Florida Project works so well because it feels so real. If it didn’t star Willem Dafoe, one could mistake it for a documentary. It prompts the audience to ask questions and face some uncomfortable truths about our society. But it’s not just for those of us experiencing this world for the first time. This film also asks that the people in this situation look at themselves in a mirror, and while that mirror can’t change their circumstance, it may help them cope with it better. It may be slow, but The Florida Project builds to something powerful and memorable, hopefully helping us to learn to open our eyes to the world around us.