The Florida Project is a heartbreaker of a film. Filmed in cinema verite style, with the non-judgmental eye of its director, Sean Baker, the film follows around a young scrapper named Moonee (an excellent Brooklynn Prince) who sees her world differently than we would see it. To us, Moonee is a wayward, lost child of an equally wayward lost child who loves her daughter but isn’t much more than a teenager herself living in poverty, just barely scraping by with a little help from friends who give them free food and strangers who buy cheap knock-off perfume from them. To Moonee, every second of her life brings her vast amounts of joy. Something as simple as climbing stairs to hide from her friends, or sharing an ice cream cone she had to hustle enough money to buy. To Moonee, life is her playground. To us, and probably everyone else, it’s no way for a child to grow up.
The Florida Project embeds its way into our hearts in the greatest of ways, by being both breathtaking art and shattering realism. There are no easy answers for Moonee. We know what lies ahead for her, and we know her sunny outlook might last — but it probably won’t. Baker captures the moment in her life when everything suddenly changes, but he still manages to tell the story from Moonee’s perspective. We see her mom the way Moonee sees her. We see the beautiful, tender moments — not just the tragic ones. And that might make The Florida Project the most heartbreaking and heartwarming movie of the year. Moonee loves her mother because most kids do. She’s probably the only human being alive who loves her. And somehow, that matters more than anything else. Suddenly Moonee’s love for her mom, and her happiness with her crazy, unbalanced, unsafe life is like a magical power in and of itself. Moonee is a little princess in disguise.
This film is so good, and it really just gets better the more you think about it. It’s not just Baker following around a really verbal and expressive child. It is that, but there is much more to it, just like there was more to Tangerine, Baker’s last film that lulled you into thinking it was going nowhere and then WHAM — it hits you with an ending that makes you dissolve into pitiful tears. The Florida Project has a really good chance to be that movie that voters push to the top of their ballot because they want it to succeed. They want Moonee to succeed and their vote, however irrationally, might express that. Remember: Oscar voters mostly vote with their hearts.
Sean Baker needs a DGA nomination. The film needs a SAG ensemble nomination. The former seems solidly likely, given the one-two punch of Baker’s incredible talent and how moving the film is. Ensemble is a different thing. They are mostly untrained actors with the exception of Willem Dafoe. Actors drive the Best Picture race, so if this one lands in Ensemble, look out.
Movies with kids in them don’t often win. It’s funny that Lady Bird and The Florida Project have similar weaknesses in terms of WINNING Best Picture — coming of age films, or movies with kids at the center really don’t win very often. Of course, there is always a first time and Oliver! did win back in 1968, another year of cultural upheaval.
With Lady Bird we know screenplay is a sure bet. The Florida Project will also need that if it is going to go all the way.