The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington reviews The Florida Project (2017) released 5th October 2017.
Film: The Florida Project.
Director: Sean Baker
Screenplay: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera and Caleb Landry Jones
Story: Precocious 6-year-old Moonee (Prince) and her mother Halley (Vinaitie) live in a Florida tourist motel close to Walt Disney World. Over one summer, Moonee and her friends spend their time causing mischief and having fun, often unaware of their parents’ severe problems.
The Florida Project was Walt Disney’s codename for Walt Disney World, his ambitious utopian dream that proclaimed “here, your dreams come true”. But in his new film, director and co-writer Sean Baker, having previously directed the iPhone-shot Tangerine, puts a realistic spin on this motto.
With Disney World’s opening, many cheap and tacky motels sprung up around the Orlando area to accommodate visiting tourists. However, these used to house different guests: homeless low-income families struggling to find employment. It is an economic problem still worryingly prevalent today.
Using this commercialism-dominated world as the backdrop for his story, Baker has created an astonishing film that shows it from dual perspectives. Halley’s world is the realist one as she struggles to pay her rent and make ends meet to sustain welfare for Moonee and herself. Even whilst set in a child-friendly pink and yellow castle-styled motel, these scenes are a heart-breaking reminder of real life.
By contrast, Moonee’s world is full of laughter and warmth. With her friends, they use their daily adventures to transform their neighbourhood into an adventure playground. As with most children, they are innocently oblivious to the grown-ups’ financial hardships and we enjoy being in their company so much that we almost don’t want them to find out. But Baker avoids sentiment and ultimately braces both us and them for the eventual clash between both worlds. His film is one of the best observations of childhood in years.
Having a bigger budget than Tangerine largely helps Baker, allowing him to deploy a wider creative style. His use of natural lighting and on-location shooting are chief among them. He uses the bright Florida sunlight effectively basking the crude area in a warm sunny glow. The editing is also innovative, often positioning us down to the eye level of its child leads. Through their point of view, the world is big, but an exciting place to discover.
There is one big-name star among the cast: Willem Dafoe, who gives one of his greatest ever performances as sympathetic but weary motel manager Bobby Hicks. The rest of the cast are virtually unknowns, one of Baker’s trademark casting styles. But they are just as incredible as real professionals. Bria Vinaitie is both spunky and dispirited as Halley. Along with Cotto, who gives some subtle depth to Jancey, Moonee’s mischievous new friend who slowly gains some devoted loyalty.
But the film’s real star in the making is Brooklynn Prince. As Moonee, she is absolutely phenomenal, her acting abilities matching those of Tatum O’Neal and Henry Thomas. Moonee is an unforgettable character, Prince bestowing her with infectious happiness and likeability. But when reality finally kicks in, she brings tears to our eyes too. She reminds us all that Moonee is only an innocent child in a cruel world. This leads to a wonderful uplifting finale that must be seen to be believed and provides the perfect conclusion to one of 2017’s greatest films. An emotional masterpiece.