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The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker, made me think of Colossians 3:20: “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” This is an essential life lesson for any child to be taught. But what happens when the parent or parental figure is filled with unrepentant sin? What if they abuse their children, not just physically but also emotionally and mentally? These abuses are present in The Florida Project, a very real and at times uncomfortable look into the lives of people who live in a motel just outside of Disney World.

The film stars and follows relative newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Pierce, who play the central mother-daughter duo, Hailey and Moonee. First-time film actress Bria Vinaite in particular delivers a phenomenal performance. She captures the essence of a young impoverished woman slowly descending into degeneracy and the compromise of her own daughter just so she can keep them alive.

On the other end of the acting spectrum is Willem Dafoe, who plays the manager of the hotel where Hailey, Moonee, and many other individuals reside. Dafoe displays the sincerity, empathy, and strictness of a man who must keep all of his tenants accountable while also trying to be a mentor figure for the younger residents, Hailey and Moonee in particular.

Each actor conveys the hardships and also the kinship that can come from living in this environment. The film does not shy away from portraying many of the terrible circumstances endemic to this hardscrabble life. Viewers will find the dramatic twists and turns, as Hailey resorts to theft, lying, and eventually prositution in order to provide for herself and Moonee, to be emotionally turbulent and wrenching. While Hailey’s actions should not be condoned, we as the audience are given insight into why she would resort to such tactics; arguably she does so as a response to forces outside of her control.

The film is full of intriguing imagery and social commentary; Disney World is constantly visible in the distance from where the main characters reside in their hotel room. The influence and shadow of the massive business conglomerate heavily affects the residents’ lives, from watching the fireworks from their steps or public lawns to peddling goods to the tourists coming through.

While the film itself is a powerhouse of acting, competent camera movements, genuinely biting social commentary, and engaging dialogue, the last few minutes do falter. It seems as if the characters are rushed to an emotional payoff at the end, and the final two minutes are truly bizarre. However, this is a small blemish on an otherwise extraordinary feat that dares to tackle the realism of American poverty, even in the shadow of “the world’s happiest place.” (Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material. Netflix)

Editor’s Note: The Banner published another review of this movie in 2018. Read that review here.

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