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

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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.

Pho­to­graph by Har­ryson Thevenin

Bria Vi­naite (Hal­ley) and Brook­lynn Kim­berly Prince (Moonee) in Sean Baker’s ‘su­perbly sym­pa­thetic’ The Florida Project.

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