LFF 2017: The Florida Project Review
Opening on a pastel pink backdrop and to the thumping strains of ‘Celebrate’ by Kool & The Gang, The Florida Project immediately sets a joyful tone for what’s to follow. It is an introduction that perfectly reflects the long fun-filled days Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends have ahead of them, the kids happily running around the cheap Florida motel they call home, making their own adventures and causing havoc for the other residents. Yet while this approach gives Sean Baker’s film its unique, endless charm, it is also something that makes the horrible reality of their situation all the more impactful when it does begin to rear its ugly head.
Shot mostly from the kids’ point-of-view, we follow them around as they pass the time any way they can: playing hide and seek, eating ice-cream, even trying to get tips from passing tourists. Like Baker’s previous film Tangerine (2015), the writer-director keeps things loose and fun, obvious improvisation adding to the verisimilitude of these scenes and also accounting for most of the laughs. In particular any scene with Moonee is an absolute joy to watch, Brooklynn Prince an easy and mighty presence onscreen despite being only 6-years-old. She even holds her own against Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the kind yet fierce motel manager who the kids enjoy making life hell for on a regular basis.
While the laughs draw us into the story and the kids’ wonderful, playful world, Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch begin to cleverly drip-feed moments in that reveal the full magnitude of the situation facing most of the residents there. From bedbug-ridden rooms, to the threat of evictions, we begin to understand how the motel is a literal last resort for them, each living hand to mouth and just barely getting by. Showing this through the children’s eyes makes this all the more startling to see, the normalcy of it for them revealing how long they have lived like this. A scene in which Moonee nonchalantly walks up to a charity van giving out free food shows how this is just a regular routine for her, as is helping her Mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) sell cheap, wholesale perfume outside a nearby bigger, wealthier hotel. Anything they can do to keep a roof over their heads.
That this is all happening within metres of these other, richer residencies and in the shadow of Disney World – one of the most commercial, profit-driven places in the country – is a sickening irony that Baker makes apparent. In a brilliant touch, on more than one occasion we see helicopters taking off practically in the motel’s car park, Halley and the kids often sticking their middle fingers up at them, making the unfairness of it seem almost like a cruel joke. The motel they live in itself is a cheap, vivid purple version of the Disney World castle – the kids’ own magical kingdom, as they could never afford to visit the real one. In these moments Baker’s energetic direction and Alexis Zabe’s vibrant cinematography show us the beauty the children see around them, even in poverty. Abandoned houses become open worlds ready for exploring and a field of cows their own private safari. And in one scene, Moonee takes her friends on a tour of her motel home, inventing fantastical stories about each of the residents that sadly sting with a hint of the truth. It is this childlike glee that not only keeps us hooked, but that gives The Florida Project an astonishing, affecting depth – a realism rarely felt in films portraying similar subjects.
Baker is careful to keep this lightness of touch throughout, even as the harshness of their lives becomes more noticeable to us. But moments where the dark reality does encroach on Moonee’s little bubble of imagination are the hardest to watch, the innocence on her face apparent as she tries to process exactly what is happening. This is also true for Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a girl living in another motel that is in a slightly better condition, but which still houses those with little money. The two find comfort in each other away from the adults, sharing secrets and their favourite places to hang out, their friendship a joy to see naturally growing onscreen. However, it is Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite’s brilliant onscreen chemistry that makes The Florida Project’s story that much more impactful, their mother-daughter relationship unconventional, yet no less poignant. Vinaite is exceptional as Halley, her no-bullshit attitude and rage against the hypocrisy of it all distressing to watch as she finds it increasingly difficult to make rent money. It is an endless cycle that is dragging them down, but which Halley will always strive to escape from for the sake of her daughter – no matter what.
It is this striking realism that makes The Florida Project one of the rawest, affecting films you will see in a long time. Balancing laughs with graveness takes talent, however it is one Baker has bravely done to excellent effect. Building to a heartbreaking finale that revels in the power of the imagination, the feeling of terrifying desperation that follows the characters stays with you for a long time, something that is made all the more painful and real by showing it from the point-of-view of the most innocent of lives. Powerful, magical cinema at its very best, and absolutely essential viewing.