What a difference a mile or two can make. Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) live in a motel room just beyond the borders of the magical kingdom of Walt Disney World. From their perspective, they might as well be living a continent away. They scrape by using any means at their disposal with little regard for morality or legality. While Halley surely knows better, young Moonee is oblivious to the rules and hardships of the adult experience. She spends her time blissfully unaware of the bigger, brighter world that could be hers in another existence. She pals around with the other local kids who each share similar life stories. Together, they spend their time like most kids lacking proper supervision — generally getting into trouble.
Their daily travails are overseen by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of the motel. He’s there to collect a paycheck and tries to keep his distance, emotionally and physically, from the motel’s tenants. He knows the plight of the people inhabiting his rooms, but he feels powerless to do anything about it.
Writer/director Sean Baker presents a character study into the lives of people living on the fringes. While he certainly has an eye for striking colors and vibrant visuals, he seems to have little comprehension of the art of engaging storytelling. Parents may have a moment or two of mild discomfort as the mischievous kids get into some potentially sticky situations, but that’s it.
On the whole, The Florida Project perfectly paints a picture that few have any interest in displaying. Fans of this sort of film will say that it flawlessly captures the experience of the people who live this way. While that may be entirely accurate, it doesn’t qualify as a valid reason for creating such films. Mimicry by itself is not inherently interesting. To move beyond a flat canvas, the audience needs a well-conceived story arc. Pointing the camera at curious people and unusual imagery doesn’t count.