With The Florida Project, writer-director Sean Baker has further established himself as American cinema’s foremost chronicler of the downtrodden and dispossessed. He tells the stories that no else will, and does so with insight, nuance, and a dazzlingly bright visual style. Following up the critically acclaimed Tangerine, his latest film takes us on a child’s eye view of the housing crisis in America, revealing to us a community of poverty-stricken people that millions will drive past every year without even knowing they are there.
Along US Route 192 in Kissimmee, Florida, in a motel called The Magic Castle, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee and her friends run wild in this strange place on the border of Disney World. The little scamps have adventures in the abandoned neighbourhoods, getting into scrapes, being naughty, and scamming tourists for ice-cream money. In the bubble of childhood imagination, Baker finds beauty and joy in a reality where these things so rarely exist.
Once a thriving tourist strip for Disney World vacationers, the area has fallen into hard times. As Disney World has expanded over the years to become a one-stop destination that you never need to leave, the surrounding area, once so prosperous, is now being squeezed to death by the House of Mouse. The only way these motels can now stay afloat is as accommodation for those with nowhere else to go.
Halley and Moonee make ends meet by selling knock-off perfume outside some of the fancier hotels and country clubs. They get free food smuggled to them from the back door of a restaurant where one of Halley’s friends works. Everyday is an adventure of giggling mischief under the orange glow of the Floridian sunshine.
The film is as much about family as it is about their circumstances, and Baker’s cast of first time actors, many of whom live this life for real, give extraordinary performances. They are painfully authentic. The only big name in the cast is Willem Dafoe, as motel manager Bobby, a surrogate father figure to the lost souls in his care. His brilliant and affecting turn saw him rightly nominated for an Academy Award.
Baker treats his characters with real heart and humanity, never looking down or patronising them. This is not your typical well-meaning Hollywood poverty tourism, but a piece of art brimming with empathy and anger. In the second half of the film, the perspective subtly shifts more towards Halley, and the stark desperation of their predicament begins to swim into focus. The choices she has begin to disappear, and reality stalks its way into the fantasy idyll.
We’ve all seen and read stories of people struggling to keep a roof over their children’s head, but rarely has it been articulated as beautifully and with such compassion, as it is in The Florida Project. Vividly depicting life in the impoverished margins of one of the richest places in America, this is a stunning film. As uplifting as it is heartbreaking, and featuring two performances (from newcomers Prince and Vinaite) that are nothing short of miraculous.
Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe Director: Sean Baker Writer: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch Released By: Altitude Film Distribution Certificate: 15 Duration: 111 mins Release Date: 12th March 2018