As economic inequality plagues the United States and shapes its politics, there has never been a better time for The Florida Project, a mesmerizing new film out this Thursday (Oct. 5) about how the “American dream” is unavailable to many Americans.
The Florida Project depicts an America that rarely gets Hollywood screen time. It follows a young single mother, her 6-year-old daughter, and her daughter’s small group of adventurous friends living in cheap motels within shouting distance of the capitalistic metropolis that is Walt Disney World. (Walt Disney originally named the theme park the “Florida Project.”) Disney is a looming, unseen presence throughout the film, so physically close to these impoverished families but forever out of their reach.
The film, directed by the naturalistic indie filmmaker Sean Baker (whose 2015 film Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, was just as memorable), doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense, but paints a lush, authentic portrait of these lives on the fringes of American society. Willem Dafoe is especially good as the frustrated, but compassionate manager of the “Magic Castle” motel, a man whom we learn little about apart from that he’s just doing his very best to get by.
But the success of Baker’s film rests almost entirely on one person: Brooklynn Prince, a name you’ve probably never heard before, unless you’re her parents. Prince, now 7 years old, plays Moonee, the 6-year-old Magic Castle resident whose eyes and ears serve as the viewer’s entry into this tragic world.
Meryl Streep needs to watch her back. Prince is incredible. She feels so uninhibitedly alive that about ten minutes into the film you forget you’re watching a movie and wonder how exactly you were dropped into the middle of a 6-year-old’s summer mischief.
Baker took pains to avoid the “young person, but an old soul” and “precocious” clichés in his young actors. He and casting director Carmen Cuba (who knows a thing or two about casting kids after Stranger Things) identified Prince at a local casting call in Orlando, but most of the other actors were found on the street. Baker found 6-year-old Valeria Cotto, who plays one of Moonee’s friends, at a Target. He found Bria Vinaite, who is heartbreaking in her first role as Moonee’s 20-something mother, on Instagram.
“We’ve always had a very strong reaction to the kids you usually see in Hollywood films,” Baker told the Los Angeles Times. “It always feels fake; it always feels stilted. We wanted to do the opposite of that.”
Yet, Prince is still an intelligent and introspective actor giving a performance. She makes choices just as an actor of any age would—modulating her voice, subtly furrowing her brow, knowing how the camera moves. Toward the end of the film, in a devastating scene in which Moonee (and the audience) cries, Prince demonstrates what might be the youngest example of method acting in cinema history:
“I just imagined myself being in that situation—those kids going through that,” Prince said in an interview for the Toronto International Film Festival. “And that just touched my heart.”
The wonder of her performance is that despite all that technique, it doesn’t feel like a performance. Moonee is somehow relentlessly entertaining without ever, even in the slightest bit, coming across like a child mascot dreamed up solely for our amusement. That’s also a testament to Baker’s writing and loose, improvisational filmmaking process.
When the Oscar nominations are announced in January, Prince is a long shot, but she deserves one—which would make her the youngest acting nominee of all time. It’s a crowded field, filled with huge stars such as Streep, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and Judi Dench. But just because Prince is still losing her baby teeth doesn’t mean she’s any less deserving of recognition.