Why Bria Vinaite, as a Loving Mother From Hell, Is the ‘The Florida Project’s’ Not-So-Secret Weapon

A novice actress's startling performance helps power a breakout indie hit.

It’s this year’s little indie movie that could. In the last two weeks, audiences have gotten the chance to experience “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker’s raw, funny, lyrical, heart-wrenching drama about a little girl and her punk-rebel-slattern mother living in a lavender-walled Orlando motel along a tourist strip on the outskirts of Disney World.

Anyone who sees the film is bound to be struck by the extraordinary qualities of its acting. Brooklynn Prince, who plays 6-year-old Moonee, whiling away the summer by getting into the sort of mischief that seems all too genuine in its destructive innocence (even when it involves the soiling of car windshields or the burning of abandoned real estate), gives one of the most vivid child performances in memory. You never doubt, for a moment, that Moonee is a real kid, with true-blue feelings that didn’t come out of a screenwriter’s manual, yet by the end this little actress brings the movie something transformative: She expresses total joy, and absolute devastation, and lets you see how both are connected in a place too deep for words. Her performance is so heardrending that I would compare the end of the movie to the final moments of “The 400 Blows.”

As for Willem Dafoe, who plays Bob, the honorably beleaguered motel manager, he gets to draw upon the quality that has often been the hidden layer of his acting — a quiet stubborn gentleness — and he has a sly time revealing the many sides of a character who’s at once a boss, a handyman, a therapist, a law enforcer, and a tough-love daddy-protector. Both these performers have landed on that section of the radar marked “awards buzz,” and deservedly so. (If you compare Brooklynn Prince to the child Oscar nominees of the past decade or so, from Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” to Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine,” I’d argue that she blows each of them away.)

Yet it would be a righteous good thing if all the attention won by Prince and Dafoe didn’t overshadow the other remarkable performance in “The Florida Project” — the one that, more than any other, defines the film. That’s the work of Bria Vinaite as Halley, Moonee’s loving, raging, and desperately dysfunctional mother, whose slow but sure voyage along the path to self-sabotage forms the explosive core of the movie.

A number of observers have said that “The Florida Project” doesn’t have a story, though actually it has a strong one. It just gathers up its slow-building power through anecdote, the way John Cassavetes’ “Faces” (1959) or Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” (1970) or Eric Rohmer’s “Summer” (1986) do. The tale is that of a mother-daughter relationship that can’t go on as is, and so we wait, with a kind of delicate dread, to see how the emotional wreckage is going to hit the fan.

What we’re really watching is the study of a charismatic but pathological personality, and the most haunting aspect of “The Florida Project” is the burn of reality that Vinaite brings to the role. Her Halley (pronounced Hail-y) is a true anti-heroine. You could argue that she’s the film’s central figure, a mother struggling to do right by her child, but you could also say that she’s its principal monster. That’s the harrowing beauty — the journey — of “The Florida Project:” the way that we’re for her and against her at the same time.

Vinaite isn’t a trained actress. She’s a 24-year-old Lithuanian-born resident of Brooklyn who had never acted professionally before, and Baker discovered her on Instagram (where she was promoting her pot-themed clothing line). When we first see Halley, there’s a found-object quality to her tattooed-hipster vibe. The tats are real (most strikingly, a bouquet of roses that seems to erupt right out of her bosom), and she wears her fiberglass-blue hair like someone who knows it’s going to work against her in job interviews and couldn’t care less.

Where Vinaite’s acting leaps to life is in her portrayal of a young woman trapped in a rebellion that’s really her furious rejection of life. She’s the kind of mother who challenges her daughter to burping contests, sits around watching cartoons with her, and shares her delight in cheap plastic jewelry, because she’s really a child herself. She also encourages Moonee to give the finger to a police helicopter, because that’s Halley’s go-to stance: flipping the bird at anyone who gets in her way.

Vinaite gives her the cunning of a scavenger who’s authentically street smart. Halley has been working scattershot hours as a stripper, and she isn’t comfortable until she can identify someone around her — Bob asking for the rent money, or maybe her best friend — as a villain and predator. Part of the film’s power is that it never sketches in her past, because it doesn’t have to. The background of abuse comes off her like a scent. The heartbreak is that she’s doing all that she can to break free of it — showing her daughter the love she never got — and repeating the pattern at the same time.

As “The Florida Project” goes on, Halley grows more and more unhinged, until her slovenly parenting begins to spill over into its own lackadaisical form of abuse. It’s not that she’s ever violent toward Moonee (though she’s plenty violent toward others). But she starts to turn tricks right there in the motel room, with Moonee hidden in the bathroom, and when we first see the little girl in the tub during one of these encounters, it’s the most wrenching image of the year.

Vinaite acts with no apology, the same way Chloe Webb did as the squalling punk-rock junkie Nancy Spungen in “Sid & Nancy.” She makes Halley not just a character but a force. She’s all those mothers — desperate, angry, straining to outrun the jaws of poverty — who are working to hold it together but have no idea that the enemy they’re really fighting is themselves. Yet what she shows Moonee, in almost every scene, is a trashed but smiling form of love. She’s the only mother the girl has got, and that, too, is the film’s heartbreak. The final moment of Vinaite’s performance is a startling close-up of her mouth, screaming a pitiless “F—k youuuuu!” It’s a taunt that’s really an infant’s scream elevated into a tragic wail, showing you what it feels like, and what it means, when that emotion has consumed all others.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Tuva-Novotny

    Tuva Novotny Questions Monogamy in 'Diorama' Pic (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Actress-turned-helmer Tuva Novotny thrives on big challenges. Her feature debut “Blindspot,” Norway’s entry for the 2019 Nordic Council Prize, was shot in real-time in one take and illuminates mental health issues. Her sophomore mainstream Swedish pic “Britt Marie Was Here” –slated for a Sept. 20 U.S. release via Cohen Media Group –  [...]

  • Seizure

    Writer Megan Gallagher On Her Viaplay Supernatural Nordic-Noir 'Seizure'

    With outposts in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, Miso Film has become one of the most influential film and TV outfits in Scandinavia. On August 19, the company’s Norwegian arm lifted the curtain on its series venture, the supernatural police drama “Seizure” by premiering the show’s first two episodes at the Haugesund Film Festival ahead of [...]

  • Thoma-Robsahm

    World Partners Board “a-ha The Movie” as Helmer Tells It All (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Pitched at Haugesund’s New Nordic Films confab, Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm’s doc “a-ha -The Movie” won’t hit screens before November 2020, but an array of new production and distribution partners have already boarded the project. Clementina Hegewisch of Neue Impuls and Matthias Greving of Kinescope Film in Germany are now co-producing [...]

  • “@Chica-Chile-Norway”

    Miso Film Norway Unveils ‘Tainted’ Details, Drive to Target Youth Audiences (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  — Miso Film Norge, the Oslo-based arm of one of the most prominent of Scandinavian production outfits whose credits include “1864,” Warrior“ and Netflix’s “The Rain,” has part lifted the curtain on its latest scripted venture, the teen revenge-thriller “Tainted.” The TV outfit produced the 8×30 series in collaboration with Norwegian public broadcaster [...]

  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

    Film News Roundup: Stephen King's 'Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon' Movie in the Works

    In today’s film news roundup, a Stephen King horror movie is in the works, “Downton Abbey” is seeing strong sales and a project about Revolutionary War soldier Deborah Sampson is in development. KING ADAPTATION Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” has been set up as a movie at George A. Romero’s Sanibel Films, [...]

  • Moviepass

    MoviePass Confirms Security Issue With Customer Records

    MoviePass, the struggling movie ticket subscription service, has confirmed a security issue may have exposed customers’ records. In a statement, MoviePass said Wednesday that the security lapse was recently discovered and its system was immediately secured. Reports of the data breach first surfaced Tuesday through the Tech Crunch site, which alleged that tens of thousands [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Matthew Modine Accused of Violating Labor Laws With Campaign Videos

    Matthew Modine has been accused by SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris of violating federal laws in his campaign to unseat Carteris. The production of three campaign videos for Modine by the for-profit New York Film Academy — on whose board Modine sits — has been blasted by Carteris for alleged violations of federal labor law prohibiting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content