kevinyang’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Florida Project is about limitations. The characters are fenced in, their futures volatile and insecure, their places of residence so geographically close to privilege yet so far. There are limitations placed on their employment options, their housing options, and even their pizza topping options. Willem Dafoe's character acts like a sheriff at times, ensuring that people are paying what they owe and that others are limited from venturing onto the premises. The premises themselves are run-down and grimy in many places, and certain scenes exude sadness without even trying.
However, The Florida Project is also about the life that keeps on flowing, the life that connects people and beckons toward a sense of hope, even despite those limitations. And when you're a kid, even though you oftentimes see the same things that the adults do, you tend to have different priorities. You tend to focus your attention on seemingly mundane things and manage to squeeze out whatever life is left in them. You can spend hours on a task as vague as "playing", thus escaping even as you're entrenched in whatever limitations you were born into. There's a reason for Alexis Zabe's crisp 35 mm shots, the framing (the camera captures key background images that provide depth, but they're in the background intentionally), the way vibrant colors are infused into what is theoretically a dreary situation. Because 1) the film is from a kid's perspective, and 2) the hardships of these characters' situations don't overshadow the palpable energy that you can sense once you pay attention to them. By simply observing their lives, the film sticks up for them as complex, caring individuals. As a mother-daughter pair, Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince are revelations, the former giving off shades of Riley Keough and the latter giving a performance on par with the wonderful Jacob Tremblay's in Room. The always reliable Willem Dafoe brilliantly handles one of the trickier balancing acts of the film: crafting a seemingly peripheral character who by necessity needs to be part of these residents' lives, but also is invested by choice.
In a way, that also describes us, the audience. We might laugh because the kids are being kids, or we might look at their actions with a disapproving gaze, or we might start to truly care for their well being. It's repetitive, yes, and not every scene is compelling. We're watching and living their lives, though, and that outside connection is something they're not afforded very often. These kids aren't idiots. They're kids, but they're aware of the cycles that dominate the lives of the adults around them. And so, when an opportunity comes to dream, to hope, to revel in something simultaneously unattainable but in their grasp, they'll take it. The off-putting yet beautiful ending is the culmination of those ideas, a stylistic expression of childish wonder from a melancholy heart.
Run toward that symbol of hope. Sprint if you must. You're always going to be limited by someone or something somewhere, but if just for a little bit you can feel like life is endless, then you've found something special. Sean Baker found it.