According to September 2017 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau provided by the Federal Safety Net, 40.6 million Americans or 12.7 percent of the population live in poverty — that's one in eight people. The child poverty rate is even higher — one in five children. This is particularly disturbing because children can do little to influence their living conditions.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a feisty, independent, and quite wild six year old who lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a dingy room at the Magic Castle, a three-story motel. This spunky little girl has two good friends — Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) — who join her in a nonstop series of adventures and pranks in the housing projects surrounding the Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
The magic produced on the screen comes from director Sean Baker's decision to tell the story from Moonee's point-of-view. Surging and often boisterous energy sends her and her friends running across fields and through alleyways, having a spitting contest, disturbing a neighbor sunning topless by the pool, begging for money from tourists for ice cream cones, and starting a fire at an abandoned housing tract.
The motel itself is their special place. Showing Jancey around, Moonee points out a room where a "man gets arrested a lot" and a "woman thinks she's married to Jesus." Later she takes Jancey on a "safari" to see some cows and they sit on her favorite tree ("It tipped over and it's still growing").
Moonee gets a kick out of irritating Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the patient and kind-hearted motel manager. He already has enough on his hands without having to deal with the kids, but he is patient with them and even mildly amused by their antics. In addition to trying to get the transient residents at the Magic Castle to pay their bills, he has to deal with fights, noise, and strangers like the old man hanging around the playground who seems to be getting ready to expose himself to the children.
Moonee's mother Halley just scrapes by selling perfume out of shopping bags to tourists. Bobby correctly suspects that her other money earning efforts are illegal and bound to get her in trouble with the law. From Moonee's perspective, her mom is providing for her as best she can. Plus mother and daughter goof around a lot, reinforcing for Moonee that play is the best strategy for getting by.
The Florida Project is one of the most spiritually literate films of 2017 with an Academy Award caliber performance by Brooklynn Prince. Like Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild she has much to teach us about the disappointments of poverty and the character qualities necessary for survival.