Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
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Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine is a real peach of a film. A portrait of life on the fringes of America’s buzzing tourist hotspot of Disney World, The Florida Project spends its days not riding the rollercoasters, but trying to make ends meet in a rundown motel – a candy-coloured building that houses rotten dreams from all walks of life.
Our window onto that world is Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), who lives in a room with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). One is six years old. The other still hasn’t become an adult. Their juvenile existence is fraught with risks and danger, from men coming into Halley’s room for money to Mooney running across roads unsupervised – and Baker’s movie succeeds in precariously perching between the childlike joy of free ice creams and spitting on cars and the sober knowledge that things here cannot have a happy ending.
The director wowed audiences with his candy rush of a debut, shot on iPhones with a heady urgency. He upgrades to 35mm here, but he’s lost none of that vivid immediacy or eye for the hard knocks of real life. The sense of location here is particularly poignant, as everyone is rooted to the motel to survive, from Moonee’s friends, boasting names like “Scooty”, to Halley’s fellow mothers equally struggling to hold down jobs. Every so often, they all have to move away for one night, allowing them to move back in again 24 hours later, so they’re not classed as permanent tenants. But everyone knows that these residents are in it for the long haul – what other choice do they have?
Bria and Brooklynn are remarkable, both bursting with day-glo charm and a blunt honesty. Moonee’s dialogue is hilariously rude, as she takes no prisoners with an innocence that’s already primed for a harsh world. Her mother, though, makes her look like an angel by comparison; while Moonee is a bad influence on the other kids, Halley is a bad influence on everyone around her. Their characters, not a strict narrative, drives the flowing plot of the film, and the film is all the better for it.
Between them stands Willem Dafoe, who provides perfect support as Bobby, the tough-but-tender manager of the motel. It’s a generous turn, at once funny, compassionate and tough, and he offers a gateway from the sugary highs of childhood to more serious matters, such as the law and stranger danger – in a cast of non-professionals, he blends right in.
The film is at its best when just freewheeling along with its young cast, racing into empty homes and watching them stuff their faces with pancakes, after sneaking into a nearby hotel for breakfast. The result warms your heart for two hours, before breaking it entirely, blending Disney-worthy entertainment with Ken Loach social realism. It recalls Beasts of the Southern Wild, but finds a more unexpected companion piece in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a slice of cinema that also explored America’s forgotten, recession-hit outskirts. Mooney may lack the freedom of the road, but there’s comfort, no matter how hollow, in the knowledge that when life’s troubles get too real, the Magic Kingdom is only a short run away.
The Florida Project is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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