THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Sean Baker

Stars: Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik, Caleb Landry Jones, Mela Murder.

Independent filmmaker Sean Baker previously gave us the gritty and downbeat drama Tangerine, which followed a group of transgender prostitutes working the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevarde and Highland Avenue in Hollywood. The film was shot guerrilla style on an I-phone, and Baker used a largely non-professional cast to flesh out the characters. The film was suffused with an understanding of the hardscrabble lifestyle of the street wise characters.

The Florida Project is Baker’s third feature film, and serves up another grim portrait of life on the streets in contemporary America, but in scope and style it is more ambitious. The film is set largely in a rundown residential motel in Orlando, Florida, located in the shadow of the Disney World theme park. But life is far from a happy fantasy world for the characters who live here.

The drama itself takes place over the course of one summer. It centres around Moonee (played with vitality by newcomer Brooklynn Prince), a precocious, carefree and assured six-year-old and her self-centred, narcissistic and out of work mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a heavily tattooed former exotic dancer. They live in the Magic Castle, a slightly seedy motel that has seen better days. While Halley tries to eke out a living by selling cheap trinkets, Moonee spends her days playing, scrounging for food and exploring with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). This friendship group and their antics has largely been inspired by Our Gang and Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals. Moonee is largely oblivious to Halley’s desperate financial situation and the sometimes perilous choices she makes. Halley’s actions eventually lead to an emotionally devastating finale.

The hotel is managed by the gruff and often frustrated Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who has a kindly heart and a lot of patience, and he becomes something of a surrogate father figure for Moonee. The motel’s policy is not to allow long term rentals, but Bobby allows the guest to move rooms regularly giving them a sort of permanence and stability.

Baker co-wrote the script with his regular collaborator Chris Bergoch, and it captures the innocence of childhood and the darker nature of the adult world. The film is by turns heartbreaking funny and harrowing. However, their approach is non-judgemental. The Florida Project explores themes of the innocence of childhood, parental neglect, social injustice, poverty, the housing affordability crisis. It unfolds largely as a series of vignettes, giving the material an almost episodic feel. The film is suffused with a sense of realism as it explores the hardships of these characters, and it is not an easy film to sit through. However, despite the bleak setting, it is deeply sympathetic towards their plight. There is a hint that a happily ever after lies somewhere in the future for Moonee.

Baker elicits raw and natural performances from his largely unknown cast that consists mainly of first time actors. Prince is extraordinary as Moonee, through whose eyes we view most events. She brings a brashness, resilience and vulnerability to her bold and assured performance. Baker found newcomer Vinaite via Instagram, and the first-time actress imbues her Halley with a hard as nails quality as well as a flinty desperation. Dafoe delivers one of his best performances as Bobby, the hotel manager who tries to bring a sense of stability to the troubled lives of many of his clientele.

Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe (Lake Tahoe, etc) hails from a background in music videos, and he has shot the film in 35mm and uses a bright, often garish and accentuated colour palette that contrasts with the dingy setting and softens the hard edges of this slice of life drama. He also captures this surreal landscape where a string of retail outlets sells Disney merchandise against the background of a suburban wasteland.

★★★☆

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