If you have to watch one (HBO) Max movie in May 2024, stream this one

Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project.

May is an unusually quiet time for movies on Max, which typically has a long list of additions at the start of the month. For action fans, the original Mad Max trilogy is back ahead of the theatrical release of the new film Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga later this month. Beyond that, there’s not much to get excited about besides The Lighthouse, a 2019 psychological thriller where Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson go stark raving mad in the 19th century.

Instead of going with that film, our choice for the one Max movie that you have to watch in May is The Florida Project, which also features Dafoe in a leading role. This low-budget drama takes place in and around The Magic Castle, a budget hotel located near Walt Disney World in Florida. But this movie is about as far from a Disney flick as it gets, and it’s an all-too realistic story about the poverty that exists side by side with corporate prosperity and affluent tourists.

If you need more convincing, these are the reasons why you should watch The Florida Project on Max in May.

Willem Dafoe gives a fantastic performance

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in The Florida Project.

Willem Dafoe is great in just about every movie he’s ever made, and he’s a fantastic screen villain whose wild eyes and facial expressions make him a convincing threat. Take, for example, his over-the-top performances as Green Goblin in Spider-Man and Spider-Man: No Way Home. In The Florida Project, Dafoe is the only established actor, and the character he plays, Bobby Hicks, is not a caricature or a bad man. He’s just a regular guy who’s trying to be decent.

Bobby’s not a showy part, and Dafoe’s performance is much more subdued here than in many of his other roles. That’s why he’s so believable as The Magic Castle’s beleaguered manager. Bobby doesn’t appear to have the best relationship with his own son, Jack, but he’s protective of the kids living in the hotel even when they annoy him. Bobby’s lone sphere of influence in this world is this tiny tourist trap budget hotel. He is also the only responsible adult in this story, and it’s almost impossible not to like him for that.

The kids are very believable in their roles

The cast of The Florida Project.

It’s not easy to convincingly write for children, especially when the vast majority of TV shows and movies treat them like little adults with one-liners and sarcastic asides. The Florida Project completely sidesteps that problem by letting Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends behave like actual kids. They get in trouble, they cause mischief, and they don’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening around them.

Even though they make life difficult for Bobby, it also easy to see why he cares so much about their well-being. There’s a sweetness to the bond that Moonee, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) share with each other. Cotto and Rivera are good in their roles, but Prince is even better. When Moonee is shattered by the events near the end of the film, it’s heartbreaking to watch as she cries uncontrollably.

It’s a harrowing journey into the dark side of poverty

Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in The Florida Project.

For the most part, Moonee is in remarkably good spirits despited her life of poverty. The burden of that life falls on Moonee’s mother, Halley, as played by first-time actress Bria Vinaite. There’s no silver lining in Halley’s life other than Moonee herself. Most of Halley’s misfortune comes from the choices that she’s made, but that doesn’t make it fun to watch her suffer the consequences.

It would be too easy to simply dismiss Halley as an unfit mother. And the film doesn’t revel in Halley’s increasingly dire circumstances. Instead, the story feels like an unfolding tragedy that may ultimately cost Halley the one person in her life that she loves.

The ending leaves a lasting impression

Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in The Florida Project.

Without spoiling the specific way that the story ends, The Florida Project‘s conclusion feels like an inescapable gut punch. The movie may take place in the shadow of Walt Disney World, but this is far from the happiest place on Earth. There’s no out-of-left-field, heartfelt event that’s going to fix the lives of anyone at the center of this tale.

And yet Moonee and Jancey steal one final moment to be there for each other. It can’t last, and it’s not going to. But the film gives them the closest thing to a happy ending that they’re going to get, and it’s unforgettable.

Watch The Florida Project on Max