The Florida Project is one of those movies that I quickly forget is something with a script and actors and production design and direction, because it just feels so very, very real. Unvarnished. Piercingly credible. There are scenes that made me anxious in a manner so different than the usual movie tension, because I know these sorts of arguments, I know how this goes, because this is real in a gut-wrenching way, in an inevitable, undertow kind of way, in a pure and funny and awful way.
The central characters, a 6-year-old girl and her 24-year-old mom, are played by two people who had never acted in a movie before. This is completely insane and also probably the only way it could ever have been filmed. I can’t imagine any actress, no matter how trained, being able to access the role Bria Vinaite inhabits in this movie, just knows how to inhabit, with every right instinct for how Halley would be, who Halley is. And only a girl as little as Brooklynn Prince has the kind of innocent fearlessness to throw herself wholly into these scenes, just living as Moonee. Moonee treats the world as her playground, and Brooklynn Prince treats her film set the same way.
The only experienced actor in this movie, playing, with a bit of metafilmic beauty, the Only Adult In the Room, is the wonderful Willem Dafoe. He is the perfect complement to the rest of the cast: a pillar of tested strength, a foil, a masterclass of method. Worth the price of admission: the moment where Willem Dafoe has three sandhill cranes for scene partners, and of course nails it.
I think ultimately what is most astonishing and good and special about The Florida Project is all that it shows. It shows lives we rarely see on screen, and in the process shows what movies can be: honest, empathetic, and utterly, impossibly real.