Sunshine state of mind
A young cast give brilliantly naturalistic performances in this glorious story about a bunch of deprived kids living in the shadow of Walt Disney World
The Florida Project ★★★★★ Dir: Sean Baker. With: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe. 111 mins. Cert: 15
The Florida Project is a song of innocence and of experience: mainly the former. It is a glorious film in which warmth and compassion win out over miserabilism or irony, painted in bright blocks of sunlit colour like a child’s storybook and often happening in those electrically charged magic-hour urban sunsets that the director Sean Baker also gave us in his zero-budget breakthrough Tangerine.
This also has the best child acting I have seen for years; in its humour and its unforced and almost miraculous spontaneity it reminded me of British examples like Ken Loach’s Kes or
Bryan Forbes’s Whistle Down the
Wind. Steven Spielberg once said:
“If you over-rehearse kids, you risk a bad case of the cutes.” But these kids don’t look cute or over-rehearsed or rehearsed at all; they look as if everything they do and every word that comes out of their mouths is unscripted and real. And yet what they do has the intelligence and artistry of acting. In his own grownup role, Willem Dafoe gives a performance of quiet excellence and integrity.
The drama is set in a budget motel in Kissimmee, Florida, just off the grimly named Seven Dwarfs Lane in the shadow of Walt Disney World: one of many long-stay welfare places for transients and mortgage defaulters. These places are very much, in Disneyspeak, “off property”. They are not part of the magic kingdom, which is only glimpsed at the horizon and subliminally in things like a sign showing a large circle with two smaller circles above – Mickey Mouse reduced to a corporate essence. Only at the very end of the film do we enter the Disney World precincts, a sequence apparently shot in secret.
But for the little kids who live there this rundown place does look weirdly like paradise, a place where one summer they enjoy pure, magical freedom, running around its walkways and stairwells and far afield into Florida’s unofficial countryside. These kids do something that is a distant memory for most of us: they roam (a word I hadn’t thought of for years before seeing this film) just the way children were supposed to in some former age. They wander from dawn to dusk and have fun.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a fearless six-year-old girl whose mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) has failed to get work waitressing or lapdancing and is now trying to sell knock-off perfume to people coming in and out of golf resorts. Soon Halley may have to resort to a more obviously lucrative evening business from her motel room. As for Moonee, she can just hang out endlessly with loads of other kids like her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera), whose own mom lets them have leftover food from the diner where she works.
Dafoe plays Bobby, the hotel manager, who is perennially irritated with late-paying, trash-talking Halley but looks out for her and is a veritable catcher in the rye for Moonee and all the other little kids. Bobby has a fraught relationship with his own adult son, Jack (Caleb Landry Jones), who he calls over to help with jobs. Bobby takes a pride in his hotel, making sure it is properly painted: a cheesy but somehow endearing purple, a bold contrast to the vivid orange of nearby Orange World.
Unlike most motel swimming pools in this kind of story, the one here is properly filled, functional and in fact rather inviting.
There is an adult narrative thread running through The Florida Project, a narrative of disillusion and suppressed fear; but it comes encased in the children’s heedless, directionless world of fun. The exasperated Bobby asks Moonee what exactly she’s playing and she replies: “We’re just playing.” It’s an openended, amorphous form of hanging out. It is a wonderful time for them, and Baker brilliantly persuades you that Moonee is the one in the real Eden, not the dull tourists shuffling around in Disney World. But then they break into some abandoned houses, and things go wrong for the children, and then the adults.
As director, editor and co-writer (with Chris Bergoch), Baker creates a story that is utterly absorbing and moves with its own easy, ambient swing: it is superbly shot by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, a longtime collaborator of Carlos Reygadas. Baker has the gift of seeing things from a child’s view. There is a kind of genius in that.
Running free … Brooklynn Prince as fearless sixyear-old Moonee