Mark Kermode’s verdict on The Florida Project
A six-year-old’s sense of wonder is at the heart of this joyful tale of no-hopers living on the fringes of Florida’s tourist traps
The Florida Project
(111 mins, 15) Directed by Sean Baker; starring Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
The title of this wonderfully humanist film from Tangerine director Sean Baker offers an ironic twist on the name under which Walt Disney first developed his “community of tomorrow” plans for the so-called Sunshine State. For Disney the “Florida project” was the utopian dream that blossomed into the money-spinning Walt Disney World. By contrast, the run-down motels of Baker’s summerbreak drama are more like “projects” in the US welfare-housing sense – home to low-income families living a hand-to-mouth existence, just beyond the boundaries of the upmarket tourist attractions.
Located in Kissimmee, which lies east of Eden on Route 192, these gaudily hued establishments have names like the Magic Castle and Futureland, evoking a dream of fun, fantasy and adventure that is jarringly at odds with harsh economic realities. Purple and yellow paint jobs can’t disguise the fact that many of the residents are in the red, struggling to pay rent, intermittently ousted from their rooms to avoid possible claims of residency. Yet the fairytale is still very much alive for the kids at the centre of this thrillingly vibrant film, which Baker tellingly calls “a modern- day
Our Gang ” – a reference to Hal Roach’s classic Depression-era kids’ comedies. As Kool and the Gang’s anthemic song Celebration reminds us at the outset, there are good times amid these hard times.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives in the Magic Castle with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a dancer and chancer who makes ends meet any way she can – hawking wholesale perfume to rich resort customers, stealing theme parkentry passes from wide-eyed tourists, and more. Meanwhile Moonee and her trusty sidekick Scooty (Christopher Rivera) take time out from spitbombing parked cars to befriend new kid on the block Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Together, they show Jancey around their wonderland home, taking us on a guided tour of the motel’s corridors, lifts and rooms (“the man who lives in here gets arrested a lot”), scamming ice-cream from the local Twistee Treat parlour (“The doctor says we have asthma and we gotta eat icecream right away!”), and occasionally shutting off the motel’s power supply for rascally giggles.
For motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) these young tearaways are a headache, but a streak of protective paternalism shines through his world-weary facade, ensuring that he’s always got their backs. Though Halley sometimes seems like a child herself (“This is so much better than TV!” she squeals when a nearby building catches fire), there’s no doubting her love for her daughter, to whom she is utterly devoted. As for Moonee, she’s watched and learned from her mum’s streetwise sass, talking and acting more like a 20-year-old than an under-10,
Purple and yellow paint jobs can’t disguise the fact that most of the residents are in the red
and insisting: “I can always tell when adults are about to cry.” All of which makes it all the more shocking when her own game-face briefly breaks into tears, and we are reminded just how young she really is.
Tangerine, Baker’s micro-budget break-out hit about a transgender sex worker, was shot exclusively on iPhone. Here, he goes a more choreographed visual style here, conjuring a child’s-eye sense of wonder as we glide from DayGlo buildings to verdant fields that unexpectedly interrupt the alien concrete landscape. Shooting on both digital and 35mm, cinematographer Alexis Zabe (whose CV ranges from Carlos Reygadas’s
Silent Light to pop videos for Die Antwoord) captures these weird widescreen vistas beneath blue skies and candy-land sunsets, finding heartstopping beauty in the image of a tree, which Moonee significantly loves because “it’s tipped over and it’s still growing”.
A scene in which the kids venture into derelict buildings ( yellow, green and pink) reminded me of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight , another Floridaset film that found kaleidoscopic poetry amid streets blighted by poverty. There’s a touch of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher or Clio Barnard’s
The Selfish Giant in the way Baker and co-writer/producer Chris Bergoch embrace Moonee’s defiant perspective, making us feel her joy and pain with all the raw urgency of youth. Fans of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey , too, will notice a kindred spirit in the portrayal of Halley, played with remarkable candour by first-timer Bria Vinaite, whom Baker discovered on Instagram. Elsewhere, open auditions and street casting have generated an authentic ensemble into whose midst more seasoned performers such as Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones slip seamlessly.
It all adds up to another superbly sympathetic portrait of marginalised experience from a film-maker whose great triumph is that he never feels like a tourist. This is Moonee’s world, and for a couple of hours at least, we are privileged to live in it.
Bria Vinaite (Halley) and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince (Moonee) in Sean Baker’s ‘superbly sympathetic’ The Florida Project.