Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones, Valeria Cotto.
Following on from his experimental 2015 effort ‘Tangerine’ in which the entire film was shot with an iPhone 5, Sean Baker turns his eye to the slums of Orlando. Setting the film in the shadow of a cheap roadside motel and its surrounding, far richer area, Baker provides his characters with a vibrant playground in which to grow. What follows is a ‘Boyhood’-like journey into the mind of a child, a film that’s thin on plot but heavy on reality, culminating in what I consider one of my films over the year so far. It’s no surprise that production company A24 were behind it, a company whose track record in its early life is nothing short of remarkable.
‘The Florida Project’ follows Moonee (Prince) and Halley (Vinaite) and their summer break. You get the idea quickly that their summers are constantly of the same vein; Halley struggling for money and food, using any means necessary to pay the weekly rent, whether from being helped by a friend, or upselling knock-off perfumes and aftershaves in the richer, tourist-filled part of Orlando. Moonee, meanwhile, is off in her own world, exploring what has become her theme park; a Magic Castle themed hotel, a neighbouring Future themed hotel, and the surrounding, rundown, ghetto areas.
As I previously stated, ‘The Florida Project’ is somewhat short on actual plot, so far as to say that life doesn’t have a plot. This film squeezes Moonee’s 2-month summer break into 2 hours; there is no real story to it, it’s just watching life unfold in front of our eyes. As the film reaches its climax, its plot begins to take shape and the tone of the film shifts into something far more dramatic and genuinely heart-breaking. What may have seemed like a fairly pointless if very entertaining venture for 90 minutes sharply shifts into focus for the final 30 and hits you like a tonne of bricks. It’s worth being patient with The Florida Project, the eventual payoff is as emotional a reaction as I’ve had in a film in years.
Due to its limited budget and small story, much of the heavy lifting is on its small but brilliant ensemble. Reading about the background of the film, much of the casting was done through Instagram or even finding Florida locals to play a role, adding to the film’s naturalistic style. Further, combining two newcomers (6-year-old Brooklynn Price and 24 year old Instagram model Bria Vinaite) with two established actors (Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landy Jones) provides the film a great balance between youth and experience.
Dafoe in particular sells his role as the Magic Castle Hotel manager brilliantly as a sympathetic guy who just wants his guests to feel safe. It’s understood that if you are staying in one of these motels long-term, you’re not in the best of situations on a financial level, and Bobby (Dafoe) understands that. He runs a tight ship and you will face consequences if you miss rent, but he understands their plight. Dafoe isn’t overly flashy in the role, he’s a facilitator in the grander picture of the film, but he does it brilliantly.
Now, child actors are risky. You can land yourself a superstar or four if you have the luck of ‘Stranger Things,’ or you can end up with Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace. Sean Baker clearly searched and searched for his star and he struck gold with Brooklynn Prince. Prince is a revelation. Prince’s Moonee felt real; it felt like we were quite literally following this little girl around for the summer, documentary style. Her mannerisms, conversations, reactions all felt completely organic because for 90 minutes she is just allowed to be a kid, she’s allowed to be silly and make mistakes and have fun. Then, after showing us who she is and her general unawareness of the tragic situation she finds herself in, Moonee is forced to grow up. Her world crumbles around her. Everything she thought she knew was safe and constant in her life gets entirely pulled from under her. This is where Prince shines. She sells everything with such conviction that I forgot I was watching a film; I felt compelled to protect her, to make sure she would be safe. I’ve never had as visceral a reaction to a single character before Moonee. The chances of it are unlikely, but I will campaign fiercely for an Oscar nomination for Brooklynn Prince. It’s my favourite performance of the year by some distance.
The Florida Project is a must-watch. It’s social commentary, it’s childhood, it’s coming-of-age, it’s family drama all rolled up into one gorgeous film. Through its final spoken words (a defiant, close-up shot of someone screaming “fuck you”) and its visual style shifting final scene, it’s sure to leave a long-lasting impression on you. It certainly has left one on me.