The Florida Project

Sean Baker follows Tangerine with another vibrant slice-of-life story about people on the fringes of American society, but this time focused on the life of a young girl and her mother

Film Review by Joseph Walsh | 09 Nov 2017
Film title: The Florida Project
Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe
Release date: 10 Nov
Certificate: 15

Frenzied, colourful and heart-breaking, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a remarkable feat of filmmaking. Following on from his breakthrough film Tangerine, which looked at the lives of two transgender sex workers and was shot on a modified iPhone 5, this film also opts to look at the lives of the disenfranchised.

Reuniting with screenwriter Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project takes place among vibrantly coloured $35 a night motels located a stone's throw-away from the blue-tipped spires of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Willem Dafoe co-stars, and it’s a role like no other he has taken on before. He plays the motel's manager, Bobby, who has the unfavourable task of fixing ice-machines, debt collecting and dealing with the woes of the poverty-line tenants. He’s kind but worn down, trying as best he can while contending with his demanding boss who sets him an endless list of menial tasks.

Taking on the lead role is Brooklynn Prince as six-year-old Moonee. She’s bright, cheeky and rebellious, a cherub-cheeked tyke with a lust for life. She’s unawares of the difficulties faced by her struggling, unemployed single mum, Halley (superb newcomer Bria Vinaite, whom Baker discovered on social media). Moonie spends her days storming around the rundown motel looking for mischief with her pint-sized pals. Daily activities range from hocking loogies on to the bonnets of cars, swindling tourists for their pocket change to buy ice-cream, and wolfing down the maple-syrup drenched waffles she gets for free from her best friend's mum.

The drama rests on how Halley will make the weekly rent. She was a stripper, but has lost her gig and can't get another. She flogs discount perfume to tourists, but gets chased out the park, borrows money where she can, but she knows this isn’t going to last. With her options dwindling, she knows there is one thing she can do to guarantee the rent money.

Sex sits on the sidelines of the movie, just off screen, but ever present. Stripping and prostitution are a way of life in this society, but Moonie doesn’t recognise it, and her mother protects her as best she can. There is a childlike perspective to the film, the adult world always in the periphery.

The plot is easy on details, and all the better for it. Like last year’s American Honey from Andrea Arnold, this is an exercise in mood and tone, exploring the day-to-day struggles of America’s poorest. Moonie and Halley’s relationship is a beautifully tragic one, a mother struggling to cope, but refusing to give in. Halley has a lioness approach when it comes to defending her daughter, even when she knows Moonie is in the wrong. The mother rarely makes the right choice, but you can’t help but sympathise with her plight. Baker portrays this with the lightest of touches, never patronising, offering a documentary style view to the on-screen action.

Equally, Baker plays it smart with setting the film in the shadow of Disneyworld, never labouring the point and building to a poignant conclusion that breaks your heart. Baker proved what a radical and vibrant director he was with Tangerine, but with The Florida Project he goes further, showing a remarkable gift for seeking out the unseen of America, which he captures with both honesty and tenderness.

Released by Altitude

The Florida Project had its world premiere at Cannes film festival – for more Cannes coverage, click here

Follow Joseph Walsh on Twitter at @JosephDAWalsh