Last night I saw The Florida Project, starring Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe.
Moonee (Prince) is a precocious hellraiser, talking her friends into all sorts of mischief (some harmless, some serious) to pass the time. She's on summer break and lives at a motel not too far from Disney World, where those more fortunate go to have fun. Her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) is young, reckless and barely able to make each week's "rent," (though the property is breaking rules by allowing them to live there).
The film is told through the sun-kissed lens of Florida, but is one of the darkest stories I've seen in a while.
When Halley can't scrape up enough cash to pay the front desk, she turns tricks in her room, sometimes with Moonee nearby in the bathtub (the sound of her customers masked by loud hip-hop music). Discovering that Moonee has talked her son into doing something illegal, the downstairs neighbor cuts off all contact, which results in Halley confronting her at her place of business, then physically attacking her on a separate occasion. You'd assume that Moonee's chances of a having normal life are slim—and you'd be right—were it not for the motel manager, Bobby (Dafoe), who spends as much time looking out for her as he does caring for the property.
I spent the duration of the film reminding myself that it was fictional so I wouldn't erupt into a rage-cry, but I know that several variations of this story do exist in real life, so the tears were hard to avoid. I remembered watching Alexandra Pelosi's amazing documentary, Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County, back in 2010. That had a similar vibe though it was real children and real parents, and they lived near Disneyland, not Disney World. Also, the parents in her story weren't monsters, they were hard-working people desperate to build a better life for their families, if the universe would just give them an out.
It's not easy to watch, but you can't take your eyes off of it. Prince, just 6 years-old when this was filmed, is phenomenal (and looks like a tiny version of Diane Lane); Vinaite is impressive too, displaying enough love for her girl that you sympathize with her in spite of her horrific behavior. And Dafoe, who is Oscar-nominated for his performance, hits all the right notes as the compassionate observer.
It will be a long time before these characters leave my mind.