This remarkable movie follows the life of a seven-year old girl and her desperate mother, not much more than a child herself, in the nether world of Florida’s welfare motels. That they live such a marginal existence on the strip-mall feeder roads in the shadow of Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom makes The Florida Project all the more poignant and disturbing.
We see this world through the eyes of that little girl, Moonee, and her friends. The performance of Brooklynn Prince as Moonee is astounding. You can’t believe someone so young can act, let alone give such a spellbinding performance. Apparently there was a minimal script - the director set the scene, then told the youngsters to “Act like kids.”
Their wildness and freedom is in sharp contrast to the lives of their parents. This is a world were there are no adult men, only women working at minimum wage jobs in franchise restaurants and convenience stores amid the endless decay.
Moonee’s mother Hallee (Bria Vinaite), covered in tattoos and slovenly, is loving to her daughter but does nothing to discourage the rampaging behavior of Moonee and her friends. In the credits the film cites the Our Gang shorts as inspiration, but there is more of a Lord of the Flies feel to their precociously crude banter and thoughtless destructiveness. The kids can be endearing, but they are scary too.
Each scene is a short burst and alternates from the kids playing to Hallee trying to get enough money to pay the motel rent or buy food. There is a breezy transcendence to how easily the kids amuse themselves - in the shadowed crannies of the motel, in nearby empty lots littered with junk and fallen trees, and, most fatefully, in an abandoned condominium complex. Kids can be kids, this tells us, even without the steroid stimulation of the Magic Kingdom next door.
Despite her refusal to accept reality, the world closes in on Hallee. She says she can’t get a job. Her best friend, who has been slipping her food from the back of the restaurant where she works, cuts her off. Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel superintendent, threatens to evict her. At the beginning of the film the only income she seems to have is from selling shoplifted perfume to tourists at the resort hotels. Moonee is too young to understand what is going on: she happily plays with her friends and shampoos her toy horses’ manes in the bathtub.
The film has a documentary feel. The unforgiving sun of a Florida summer exposes all, the good and the bad. The motel with its jaunty pastel exterior belies the misery inside. Moonee and Hallee retreat into the cave of their motel room and hang a flimsy curtain in a sad attempt to keep out the sun and the world.
As you swing back and forth between the kids innocently enjoying themselves and the adults struggling to cope, the tension builds in anticipation of something terrible happening to one of the kids or surely to Hallee. Even though the movie runs a little long (as most do), you are deeply invested in Moonee and Hallee and their circle of friends. Whatever comes, you hope it won’t be too devastating, particularly for Moonee.
I don’t know if there any awards specifically for children actors, but Brooklynn Prince should win one. She steals the movie with her natural dialogue and beguiling facial expressions.
Before The Florida Project Bria Vinaite had no acting experience. She was found by the director on Instagram just weeks before filming, but there is never a false note in the fear and loathing she makes you feel for Hallee. Bria makes her not so much evil as lost, in a totally self-destructive way. With any luck this naturally gifted actress will find other roles that suit her as well.
The only recognizable actor in the film is Willem Dafoe as the motel manager. He does his best with a tough role: you can tell by his expression that he knows that the kids are upstaging him in every scene. Dafoe is also a little too fit and handsome to be in that kind of seedy, dead-end job.
Writer/director Baker presents us with more evidence of the vast disparity in our society. These aren’t the angry young men supposedly driving the America First movement. They are the women and children who have been left behind by circumstance and their own and others' reckless behavior. They are surrounded by signs of affluence, but their entertainment is a parking lot fight, not the extravagance of a Disneyworld ride. Obviously, the project is failing them. This film will stick with you.
1945, written and directed by Ferenc Török, 1h 31min
This grim and gritty film tells the story of a small Hungarian village, right after World War II. With the Russians starting to take control of the country, the villagers know their way of life is in danger.
But what scares them most is the arrival at the train depot of two black-coated strangers, a father with a full, salt-and-pepper beard and his deferential son. They set off alarms when they contract a wagon driver to move two large boxes from the station to the village as they walk solemnly behind.
When the primitive phone system can’t connect him to town, the stationmaster heads off on a rickety bicycle instead. “They’re back,” he breathlessly tells the Town Clerk. Word quickly spreads.
But who are they and why are the townspeople in such an uproar? The two men are strangers, but clearly Jewish. The villagers are terrified that the Jews they betrayed to the Nazis at the beginning of the war are soon to return. Some of them are ashamed; others, in particular the Town Clerk, are fearful that they will lose property that was allocated to them after the Jews were taken away.
This unexplored side of the Holocaust shows how Jews were treated as they tried to return to their former lives. Anti-Semitism didn’t end with the war.
The plot is intriguing, but the indelible characters and the fine performances of the actors portraying them are the real strength of 1945.
Most prominent is the mustachioed Town Clerk, fearful and avaricious. He has denounced his best friend to the Nazis and has taken over his apothecary. He bullies and beats his drug-addled wife who regularly sniffs a liquid she squirts into a handkerchief with a hypodermic needle.
Not surprisingly, he also terrorizes his son, who is engaged to a pretty young girl. But on the day they are to be married, she has a quick but intense tryst with a handsome field hand who has been ingratiating himself with the Russians that patrol the town.
Then there is the hard-bitten woman who has taken over one of houses that had been owned by Jews. She’s loudly protests leaving her home, pointing to a phony document issued to her when the Jews' property was divided. Her husband is no help, as he tries unsuccessfully to drink away his guilt.
But what do these two quiet, dignified Jews really want? The stationmaster says that the boxes are filled with perfumes and cosmetics. Doesn’t that mean they are coming back to establish a business and ruin the “good” townspeople’s livelihoods?
Because these characters are so finely-drawn, you are both fascinated and repelled by their lives. From our perspective we know the villagers are caught in a vice between the past and the future – the still-vivid terror of the Nazis and the oppression of the Communists to come. The prejudice and the avarice of their small-town minds have doomed them. We despise them as collaborators, and cheer the survival of those that stand against them.
1945 might be hard to find in theaters, but look for it On Demand or streaming. Like many good foreign films, it infuses a small slice of life with an involving intensity.