The world of The Florida Project is not one you’d ever want to find yourself in, but by the end of Sean Baker’s wildly funny and tenderly empathetic new film, it’s also one you’ll be sad to say goodbye to. Grounded in a studied reality of Orlando’s hidden homeless, but bursting with colourful style, it’s a bit like Wes Anderson doing Ken Loach, neatly avoiding leaden worthiness or a myopic focus on misery by centring on a gang of six year olds. Baker matches the hardships of poverty with the imagination and joy of childhood, crafting his masterpiece as a result.
Based in the real-life location of the Magic Castle budget motel, in the opulent shadow of Disneyland Florida, we are led through The Florida Project by the manic six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). She’s a tiny explosion of destructive energy, like a storm escaped from its teacup, living life at a non-stop sprint, utterly unaware of the financial struggles of her young mum Halley (Bria Vinaite). With her friends Jansey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), she cuts a swathe through the motel and its surroundings, going on adventures, scamming tourists, and even accidentally lighting the occasional fire.
These kids are astonishingly good, some of the best child acting you’ll ever see. They’re foul-mouthed but caring, and though Moonee in particular is incredibly savvy, Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch never give them clichéd ‘wise beyond their years’ dialogue. They yell over one another and tell stories with no endings, just as real little kids do, but they also nail their scripted dialogue and are absurdly endearing. Prince is a supernova of raw talent, consistently hilarious until she has to be heartbreaking, and it’s easy to see why the Magic Castle’s adult residents are so permitting of the rings she runs around them.
In her first ever acting role (she was cast via Instagram DM), Vinaite is excellent. She’s funny and sad, completely charming until she’s truly angry, at which point she’s terrifying. It’s a full force performance, and the casting department and Baker’s direction of his inexperienced cast deserve unadulterated praise for doing pretty much flawless jobs. Wrangling this madness in the film is motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), an incredibly kind and understanding man, beloved by the occupants as both a good-hearted and compassionate landlord and a reluctant father figure.
It’s one of Dafoe’s very best performances, him and Baker tapping into the rich vein of emotion that kindness can bring. He’s frustrated but incredibly patient, whether he’s giving Halley advice or negotiating with a flock of herons blocking his car park, but he can also dial up the menace whenever he sees anyone dare to threaten the kids under his care. The Florida Project doesn’t need to resort to manipulative tactics to make you well up, instead finding its most moving moments in displays of grace and affection. Baker is a hugely empathetic filmmaker, and so to see him marshal a cast of often equally empathetic characters – almost everyone in the motel wants what’s best for their fellow tenants and are always offering help – is a rare cinematic joy.
By the end of The Florida Project, you’ll know the ins and outs of the Magic Castle almost as well as you know your own home. In having the kids explore every nook and cranny, as well as give guided tours for new young arrivals, we get a very strong sense of the place’s geography, and its pastel purple paint work adds to this to make for one of the most memorable movie locations of recent years. Every inch feels lived in, and DOP Alexis Zabe does stunning work with it.
Baker’s last film, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone, but here he makes a huge leap up to gorgeous 35mm film. Every run down condo, tacky store, and picturesque sky shot looks fantastic, colours positively glowing from the screen as the kids barrel past shop after shop in wide shots that give a brilliant view of this very particular corner of the world. In one inspired sequence, Baker even goes back to guerrilla iPhone shooting, adding an ever greater sense of immediacy and lightning fast energy to one of the film’s most emotionally charged moments.
As the above might suggest, The Florida Project is for the most part plotless, but that’s all part of its immeasurable charm. A child’s life is messy and disorganised, and the vast majority of the film takes place from a kid’s eye view of the world, every discovery a fresh adventure, and adult strangers’ faces rarely entering the frame a Moonee and co zip past without any sort of stop to acknowledge them. Like Moonlight last year, this is not a film that wishes to make universal statements, instead tackling its social issues with a wonderful specificity that avoids condescending or patronising its subjects.
We feel that we truly know Moonee, Halley et al, The Florida Project pulling off the trick that only the best drama can – drawing its characters so fully that, without being told about it, we can imagine their pasts and their futures well away from the cameras. These are as close as a film can come to real people living real lives, and it’s a privilege to be allowed an insight.