The “hidden homeless” is a demographic you’re probably not too familiar with – neither was filmmaker Sean Baker. Yet, after reading material his co-writer Chris Bergoch sent him about the plight of these struggling individuals, some of whom may be living right in your backyard, The Florida Project was born.
The film, which was warmly received at the Toronto International Film Festival, centers on the Magic Castle hotel, a rundown, yet colorful home for a six-year-old named Moonee and her young single mom, Halley. Throughout the two hours in the theater, the audience gets heartbreaking glimpses of the desperate choices Halley makes to earn money.
Every moment of The Florida Project feels unscripted, which means the director and cast nailed it. It is pretty jarring, with plenty of f-bombs and inappropriate gestures - even among the film's youngest stars. But, the profanity kept the story in perspective.
The realistic nature of the film can be explained by the chances Baker took in his casting. Brooklynn Prince is wonderful as Moonee (one reviewer even told Meryl Streep to “watch her back.”) Not only did he decide to make a six-year-old his star, but he found his other leading actress, Bria Vinaite, on Instagram. She “made him laugh,” so she got the job that would normally go to an experienced starlet. Baker did cast at least one recognizable Hollywood face, however. Willem Dafoe is incredibly endearing as Magic Castle hotel manager Bobby, who goes to great lengths to protect his tenants.
Giving Moonee and her childlike wonder the spotlight allowed the The Florida Project to have plenty of joyful moments in an otherwise dark scenario. Scenes with her and her friends playing pranks on neighbors, mocking Bobby and begging for ice cream cones are delightful, as is the film's vibrant color palette.
Yet, never do you forget the overwhelming poverty the characters find themselves in. It’s not your typical Hollywood love story. It’s raw, it’s jarring, and it does its job - it makes the audience much more aware of this silent struggle.
Stay for the surprise, uplifting ending.
The Florida Project is in theaters Friday. Later this month, I'll be publishing my conversation with Baker in which I pick his brain on his filmmaking process.