Contributor Monika Maurer reviews The Florida Project from director Sean Baker. Showing in the PAC cinema from 15 – 20 December. Tickets available to book via our website or by contacting our Box Office.
Writer-director Sean Baker graduates skilfully from his iPhone-filmed 2015 indie breakout hit Tangerine to full-blown 35mm celluloid with The Florida Project, a film set in the shadow of Disney World Orlando and following the adventures of six year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) during her summer vacation.
Moonee lives a precarious existence with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), sharing a room in a purple, stucco-clad motel called the Magic Castle. It is just one of many candy-coloured palaces that line a stretch of roadside here, a Technicolor world that gives the film a visual richness in stark contrast to the reality of the strip clubs, diners, wholesale stores and knock-off souvenir shops that dominate lives here.
Running unsupervised around the motel and its environs, Moonee is all mischief and fearless attitude, scamming money for ice-cream to share with her friends and leaving chaos in her wake. In one scene she instigates setting fire to a huddle of empty condominiums – thus creating the evening’s entertainment for local residents who excitedly take selfies in front of the burning buildings. Baker may immerse us in the American anti-dream but through Moonee’s eyes it is presented as her very own Magic Kingdom, a playground of riotous freedom and anarchy. Spitting, swearing and bad-ass behaviour are positively encouraged by her mother Halley, a tattooed kidult with a lip piercing and hair the colour of chemical waste who is more tearaway older sister than mother to Moonee.
As an atypical portrayal of poverty The Florida Project has life, rather than plot, as its eloquent driving force. These characters may be in desperate circumstances – moving all possessions out of their room to prove they are not permanent residents is a weekly ritual – but they have spirit, especially Moonee. Brooklynn Prince is utterly mesmerising as Moonee and in fact all children cast in the film are wonderful, notably Christopher Rivera as Scooty and Valeria Cotto as Jancey. They too exude unfettered spontaneity as Moonee’s on-off-on-again friends. Instagram star Bria Vinaite is less sure in her more demanding role as Halley, but still affecting.
The only known face here is Willem Dafoe who plays the motel’s paternalistic manager. He may tear his hair out in frustration at the antics of both the children and the adults, but he still looks out for them and gruffly indulges the children, even when they disrupt his work. The sadness etched across his face as he wearily marshals in what seems the inevitable speaks volumes.
With only a tentative narrative arc, The Florida Project feels as meandering and episodic in nature as a child’s summer vacation. Although anticipated, when Halley’s – and therefore Moonee’s – life spirals out of control, the denouement seems abrupt and comes at a different tempo to the film which precedes it. But like the rest of the film it marries wonder and joy with heartbreak so skilfully that you easily forgive it its flaws. And above all Moonee is unforgettable; she is the heart and soul of The Florida Project.