Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Disney World – a place of dreams and wonder.
Not so much for the motel residents living a stone’s throw away, always in the shadow of the Mouse.
After the iPhone led success of Tangerine, Sean Baker returns with another documentary-styled affair. This time it’s The Florida Project, a movie focusing on the families and people struggling to stay afloat in the budget strips of Kissimmee, Florida, specifically the $39-a-night motels that become defacto homes for underprivileged Floridians.
Six-year-old Moonee (Prince) and her best buds Scootee (Rivera) and Jancey (Cotto) spend their summer-break days larking about their motel grounds playing pranks and causing mischief. Living at the Magic Castle motel with her beleaguered, brash and unemployable mother Halley (Vinaite), Moonee makes the most of every day whilst Halley scrapes away flogging cheap perfume to tourists, hawking stolen Disney passes and selling her body just to pay the weekly rent. Harassed motel manager Bobby (Dafoe) carries a silent protective care towards the pair, in amongst his daily duties, as he too seemingly counts the hours until its bedtime once more. There’s no glamour in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. With every summer day that passes, Moonee and Halley carve their own paths as they struggle to stay out of trouble and to make ends meet.
To summarise The Florida Project succinctly isn’t an easy task. On one hand, it can simply sound maudlin, on another, it can sound directionless and on the other (special third) hand it can be described as a gritty portrayal of real situations. In reality, it’s a combination of the three. It is gritty and doesn’t pull any punches with its delivery, however story-wise, there’s no particular attention paid to what survival actually means to the pair – the journey is compelling and satisfying for the most part, however the destination doesn’t fully pay off (in terms of the movies actual conclusion, this is partly due to its telegraphed nature).
The performances are all high-class, which is especially impressive considering Brooklynn Prince is a young child and Bria Vinaite is a debutant plucked from Instagram. Willem Dafoe is superb as the world-weary manager, stone-faced with a soft heart. There’s never a moment to doubt the mother and daughter in their struggles or legitimacy – Baker’s experiment with casting raw talent pays off well (street performers and members of the public were drafted in to play extras for authenticity).
DoP Alexis Zabe does a brilliant job bringing life and vibrancy to the dullest, dingiest areas. The motels zing with cartoonish purples, pink and yellows and the surrounding strip crackles with giant imagery of Americana (the gift shop decals, the easily accessible gun shops etc.) The most desolate of areas are given an almost dreamlike sheen, though there’s no romanticising being offered. In terms of characters, Halley is painted as loutish and without fear of retribution and whilst her intent may be good, the character is wholly ‘unlikable’. Her ways also rub off of Moonee, who flits between innocent child and foul-mouthed troublemaker. Dafoe’s Bobby is the one real character the audience can cling to.
The depiction of children living free and finding new experiences is extremely well-presented and allows for some poignant, small moments to flourish (Moonee’s favourite tree could be seen a metaphor for herself) however, eventually things become overly repetitive. No harm would have befallen the movie had ten minutes been shaved from the runtime. Realism is the aim with The Florida Project, again, there’s no romanticising the lives of the individuals here, but still, the message was made clear pretty early on – in the jurisdiction of the cheeriest place in the world, not everybody is living the dream.
With aches of Moonlight and American Honey, The Florida Project successfully gives us a stark, convincing glimpse into a realistic situation. Whilst the narrative does follow an expected path and at times, itchiness and the fidgets set in (though it does have a refreshing way of unfurling its narrative), there are some fabulous performances here. A tough tale of how the other side lives in the shadow of the dream, The Florida Project is a very good, if not quite excellent, movie
January 1st 2018