Orlando may seem like the happiest place on Earth with the presence of Mickey Mouse and numerous world-famous theme parks, but director Sean Baker shows a darker side of the tourist city in his new film The Florida Project. First explored in 2014’s 99 Homes, The Florida Project looks at the lives of the hidden homeless of Orlando living day-to-day in seedy motels one step away from the streets or jail. The film centers around a spunky little girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who finds adventure and fun in a world of poverty living at the Magic Castle Hotel with her troubled mother.

The Florida Project takes an unflinching look inside the lives of the people calling these hotel rooms home. This section of the population relies on free hand outs, have violent fights in the parking lots and let their small children stroll around Kissimmee unattended with no rules or boundaries. The parents act like children so it’s not hard to see why little Moonie and the other kids find trouble around the property with their role models begging from tourists and wasting the little money they have on anything, but the necessities.

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Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Moonee’s mother Halley and to say the young girl’s mother is a piece of work would be an understatement. Halley is the girl you see standing barefoot at the corner of a crowded intersection with her kids holding a sign asking for money. She’s rude, vulgar, selfish and has no shame. She puts her young child in unpleasant situations so she’s an easy character to hate, but if you look at her actions from another angle you see a mother doing anything she can to keep the one normal thing in her life by her side. The range of feelings you have towards Halley going from disgust to pity is proof of Bria Vinaite’s raw talent in her first major role bringing to life an immensely flawed person with the greatest of ease.

It’s easy to understand Halley’s actions and desire to keep Moonee in her custody thanks to the incredible performance of Brooklynn Prince as the mischievous little tenant. The young Prince gives us a character that manages to smile everyday and find the fun living in a pit of despair. Director Sean Baker shows in The Florida Project what it’s like to be a kid finding trouble with your friends and unaware of the terrible things that surround you. Moonee may be a little diva at times, but she’s the only ray of sunshine that shines down on this dark place. Even the gruff hotel manager Bobby played wonderfully by Willem Dafoe has a soft spot for the little nuisance and her mom. Dafoe does some of the best acting work of his career in The Florida Project playing the de facto mayor of this suitcase city who tries to keep the peace and the people safe. Dafoe who has made a career playing villains actually serves as the moral compass in The Florida Project for many of the residents of the Castle and hides a sweet and caring side under his surly attitude.

Even with the solid acting, beautiful cinematography and fearless narrative about life below the poverty line, some viewers should be wary of The Florida Project. This independent film is nothing flashy in terms of production value and serves as a character study with some players who are uncomfortable to watch at times. If you’re a huge fan of corny Rom-Coms with nice big bows on top at the end, The Florida Project may not be for you. If you’re willing to observe a real and unwavering look at the life of the impoverished population you didn’t know existed, then give this unique small film a chance and admire the beauty in an ugly place.

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Overall, I give The Florida Project 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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