Awards season is nigh, and headlines are already using “front-runner” and “Willem Dafoe” in the same breath. Dafoe has been lauded for showing his “softer side” as Bobby, a kind but no-bullshit manager of a budget hotel in Sean Baker’s latest indie gem, The Florida Project. The Oscar buzz is understandable—Dafoe is an acting wizard—but the real reason The Florida Project is a breakout success, and the reason everyone should see the film, is the rowdy, previously unknown seven-year-old actor Brooklynn Prince. (Full disclosure: Prince follows me on Twitter. Brooklynn, if you’re reading this, I apologize for how frequently I tweet about butts. You’ll understand in a decade or so.)
Moonee, played by Prince, is a mischievous tyrant who spends her days terrorizing the Orlando hotel she calls home. Like Baker’s Tangerine, the characters in The Florida Project don’t want anyone’s pity. Prostitution, drugs, arson, assault—it all goes down in the Magic Castle, the purple hotel (or project) where Moonee lives. But don’t call the place tragic. Moonee and her gang of kindergarteners will spit on anyone who gives off even the slightest patronizing vibe. The ragtag team roams the Magic Castle unsupervised, harassing patrons and guilting tourists into buying them ice cream.
Moonee’s mother, Halley, is too preoccupied selling amusement park passes stolen from her johns to worry about Moonee. Halley, played by the newcomer Bria Vinaite, is also a tyrant. She refuses to lose a fight and always has the final word. (In one scene, Halley punctuates an argument by throwing her bloodied maxi pad at Bobby.) But Moonee and Halley’s charismatic spunkiness belie their rough exteriors. It’s impossible to survive Florida without a sense of humor, and these characters have it in spades.
Prince—with considerable help from her costars, Baker, and screenwriter Chris Bergoch—resonates beyond the twee and cute. At the film’s climax, Prince delivers a performance that would make even the surliest curmudgeon cry.
Although The Florida Project focuses on Prince, critics have zoomed in on Dafoe. It makes sense: Dafoe has been an actor’s actor for decades. He’s as comfortable in a big-budget superhero film as he is in an experimental opera with Marina Abramovic. We’ll continue to hear about Dafoe’s transformational prowess as awards season approaches, but we mustn’t forget the accomplishments of Vinaite and Prince. These two people, and especially the tiny Prince, show that an actor doesn’t need to churn through Hollywood’s system to make movie magic. Sometimes the tiniest underdog can beat the odds and become a star.