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.

Bria Vinaite is 'The Florida Project's'
Cannes Film Festival

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.