UK Release Date: 10th November 2017
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair
Synopsis: A group of kids living in motels on the outskirts of Disney World in Florida have to deal with poverty, despite living within miles of the ultimate children’s paradise.
Sean Baker burst on to the scene in 2015 with Tangerine – the tale of a transgender sex worker, which was shot entirely using a trio of iPhones. He’s now playing with considerably bigger cameras for follow-up The Florida Project, which is a child’s eye view of poverty within miles of Disney World in Florida. Shot on 35mm film, other than in one crucial sequence, it’s a visually sumptuous, freewheeling story with its considerable heart in exactly the right place.
The film follows a selection of kids living in motels just outside the Disney World theme park. They are forced to temporarily move out once a month so they don’t gain residency rights. Our protagonist is Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is the de facto leader of a small group of kids who roam throughout the grounds of their motels. Moonee’s perma-broke mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a constant thorn in the side of motel boss Bobby (Willem Dafoe), with her payments invariably coming in late. Soon, financial troubles force Halley to make an uncomfortable choice that threatens to affect Moonee and threaten their precarious living situation.
There are a few films that immediately spring to mind during The Florida Project and Baker is able to attract very favourable comparisons with them all. The slice-of-life child material channels everything from The Kings of Summer and Stand By Me to the generation-hopping Boyhood. Like the latter movie, this is a story that doesn’t have a clear narrative through line and instead focuses, for the most part, on spending time in the company of the characters.
Thankfully, those characters are utterly compelling. Seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince brings an astonishing emotional maturity to Moonee, who is entirely aware of the world around her, but never cynical or pessimistic about that world. These characters live within touching distance of Disney World – the ultimate child paradise – but they’re as far away as they can be from it, living day-to-day in poverty. Moonee and her mother scam perfume at low prices and try to sell it to gullible tourists, with Moonee herself living con to con with her friends, living a morally rather ambiguous life.
The adult cast is led by the intriguing relationship between Willem Dafoe’s avuncular Bobby and Moonee’s mother Bria Vinaite, who was discovered by Baker on Instagram. Dafoe is all but guaranteed a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his performance, which is understanding of his customer’s plight, but exasperated by their antics. He will take his patrons down a few pegs when need be, but he will also fiercely defend them if they are unfairly treated. Vinaite, too, is a standout. Her unusual casting and life on the road scams recall Sasha Lane in American Honey and she has the same unorthodox combination of youthful naivety and world-weary sadness.
Vinaite and Prince are able to tiptoe cleverly around the darker edges of the story. For the most part, Baker directs with a sun-dappled lightness of touch, but this shifts as Halley’s predicament becomes clearer. We experience the desperate circumstances through Moonee’s uncomprehending eyes, in much the same way as the worst moments of Room were hidden from view by our focus on the young protagonist. It’s a technique that, by shielding the audience’s eyes, only makes the events more troubling. Prince really helps us to feel her character’s confusion and, in one final moment, she scores an emotional slam dunk of frankly extraordinary power. If she continues to pursue acting, her level of innate talent is terrifying.
It’s in its meandering qualities that The Florida Project suffers ever so slightly. When the plot, such as it is, takes centre stage in the final act, it feels as if the film has finally found its top gear. While it is definitely the case that the looser segments help to build the characters, it’s when the narrative focuses that Baker finds the emotional potency in his work. In Baker’s film, there’s a story behind every blue sky and pastel-coloured motel building, and he wants to tell them all.
Pop or Poop?
Sean Baker has produced an emotionally affecting slice-of-life drama with The Florida Project, which nimbly depicts the tough lives of its central characters, while maintaining an admirably optimistic tone.
Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite are compelling leading performers and Willem Dafoe is the best he has been in years. Awards season surely beckons for this one.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.