A multinational conglomerate providing fairytales and disposable plastic junk casts a sun-soaked shadow over the permanent, hopeless inhabitants of the grungy motels neighbouring Disney World. It’s a space that the rest of the world would rather pretend did not exist, drowned out by dreams of castles and fairy princesses and pirates from small islands slightly south.
The Florida Project begins by following the mischievous escapades of a small crew of local children, running amok with an exuberant sense of freedom, disconcertingly without a parent in sight, despite their tender age. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) extracts brilliantly hilarious and kinetic performances from his youthful child leads. Mooney (Brooklynn Prince), Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) all display great naturalism, a trait reminiscent of the performances in Tangerine, Baker’s 2015 drama about trans sex-workers. Baker clearly has a recurring knack for allowing non-professional actors freedom to express themselves, culminating in gorgeous and raw performances and interactions, bursting with small moments of authenticity.
The film begins feeling playful, but there’s an undercurrent that something must be very wrong for these children to be so constantly unsupervised. The reality in which they exist is peeled back slowly. The film particularly focuses on Mooney and her mother Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, another superb newcomer to the screen, first spotted as an Instagram model. Halley is a young single mum, trapped in poverty and permanently living in an unappealing motel room with her daughter. Every so often the pair have to move to a neighbouring motel so that they don’t break laws and become ‘permanent residents’. They’ve fallen through the cracks and there’s no easy escape. Occasionally, Mooney says something like: ‘I need to go back to my room’. The word room replacing home serves as a subtle but particularly jarring reminder.
Halley pays rent weekly to the manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), usually late. Dafoe gives a brilliant performance, clearly worn down and weary by the humdrum of the uninspiring location and clientele, but still filled with an integral goodness. Halley hustles, selling perfume on the street to anyone who will listen, or take pity.
The film is full of seemingly incidental shots of naturalistic interactions. A recurring shot of Mooney in the bathtub feels particularly ponderous, the radio playing hip hop whilst the girl brushes the hair of her dolls. Like a lot of small things in this film, its impact only becomes realised later. Despite the film’s meandering pace and exploration of these characters’ lives, no shot ever feels wasted, each adds to a rich tapestry, often filled with layers of detail and meaning which will no doubt reward subsequent viewings.
At its core, The Florida Project is about desperation, poverty and inequality, playing its themes subtly for greater impact when they are fully realised. But the film is also consistently funny and deeply moving. It’s shot beautifully, juxtaposing the ugliness of the purple motel with the sunny vistas, using rays of light to magnify its themes. It’s also about dreams and opportunity, with both presumably occurring nearby and offscreen, whilst our neglected characters are only afforded such luxuries when completely devastated.
Review by David Rank
The Florida Project is out on 10th November in the UK. Certificate 15 (UK). Running time: 111 mins.