Still from The Florida Project

‘The Florida Project’ is Already Striking an Unexpected Chord With Film-Goers

No film has moved me more since last year’s Oscar winning best picture. And this compassionate and heartbreaking work, opening at Milwaukee theaters Friday, couldn’t come at a better time.

Is The Florida Project this year’s Moonlight?

It’s a gentle but emotionally rattling reminder that the poor live among us sometimes are us, and that economic injustice handed down from one generation to the next comes at the expense of our future, like chickens come home to roost.

There is no uplift in this film and no escape. The exits are blocked. But there is a smattering of hope in the lives of children who play with and amidst what little they have, wherever they are. 

The fortunate ones, like the formidable six year old Mooney, played by Brooklynn Prince, are loved. She is made in the image of her irresponsible but loving and likable mother Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, a blond haired profanity spewing hustler whose tattoos and piercings are like a road map of her life. Vinatae was a clothes designer discovered on Instagram; Prince has been acting in television commercials since age 3. Both are making their film debut.

The mother barely keeps a roof over their heads by hook and crook on a week-by-week basis at a freshly-painted purple but dingy residence motel on the Orlando strip in the looming shadow of Disney World, the happiest place on earth. 

The mischievous little girl and her friends are free-range kids. They dart past the budget attractions at the fringe of the park, beg tourists for change and harass guests at the motel, to the disapproval of the scowling manager, and surrogate father figure, sensitively played by Appleton native Willem Dafoe, who was an early member of Milwaukee’s Theatre X. 

Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project
Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project; courtesy of A24

It is his best role in years. His scowl and threats are worse than his bite and are followed by conscious acts of kindness. In one scene the kids play hide and seek under his desk as he does paperwork. In a more disturbing scene a father gives away all his crestfallen son’s toys because there is no room in the car they live in. 

The film is a collection of similar tableaux – Dafoe disposing of a bedbug infested mattress, chasing a predator off the grounds and evicting a drug dealer – that less build to a climax than rest atop each other precariously, creating a fuller portrait of desperate lives than a linear narrative could.

Baker is one of the few filmmakers telling stories about the economically and socially disenfranchised to capture their humanity. His previous film, the Spirit Award winning Tangerine, about a transvestite sex worker who learns her boyfriend has been cheating on her, was famously shot using iPhones. 

Also low-budget, The Florida Project is a more expansive but just as intimate portrait of hopelessness among an invisible underclass struggling to survive in the land of opportunity. 

  • With Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto
  • Produced by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Andrew Duncan, Kevin Chinoy, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou
  • Written by Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
  • Directed by Sean Baker
  • Rated R: Language, drug use, disturbing behavior, sexual references

Go See It: The Florida Project, Downer Theater, opens Friday, Oct. 20



Duane Dudek is a Milwaukee native. For more than 30 years, he was film critic and television columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He continues to apply his expertise at