THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Director: Sean Baker
Screenwriter: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Caleb Landry Jones
Runtime: 111 mins.
Australian Release Date: 21 December 2017
Previewed at: Dendy Newtown, Sydney, on 5 December 2017.
Writer/director Sean Baker made a strong impression with his previous feature Tangerine, which was shot on iPhones and took his audience on a wild ride with a pair of local transvestite sex-workers in the back-blocks of LA. In The Florida Project, his latest movie, Baker once again takes us into the underbelly of U.S. society, observing the poor and unemployed who reside in the budget motels housing transient tenants on Highway 192 in Kissimmee, Florida; the road that leads to ‘the happiest place on earth’ - Disney World.
The ironically named Magic Castle Motel is run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a manager with a kind heart who compassionately deals with a clientele he constantly has to chase up to pay their bills. His patience is put to the test daily by the kids on the block and he handles them with a firm but loving hand. Indeed, he’s a father figure to these waifs, many of whom are being raised by single mothers. Dafoe is perfect as the sole male with some kind of authority (and maturity), reluctantly dealing with his young charges, his expression often one of wry resignation. A thoroughly precocious young girl, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), barely six-years-old, lives at the motel with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who faces a daily battle to make ends meet. Halley spends much of her time hanging outside the more salubrious hotels on the strip flogging bootleg perfumes purchased from a local wholesaler. She’s covered in tattoos and has total attitude; she obviously loves her daughter but the pattern of desperation is set, for she’s succeeded in passing on her disdain for society to her young child. In fact, she treats Moonee more like a friend than a daughter and speaks to her as such. Moonee is the ring-leader of a small group of kids who run rampant over their territory, never for a moment believing that they’re impoverished. The world they inhabit is comprised of garish shopfronts and kitsch fibreglass restaurants - it’s a surreal atmosphere that matches many of the characters in the film. To Moonee though, it’s as enchanted as the real Disney World.
Without exception the performances are thoroughly convincing, and absolutely confronting; in fact, Moonee’s mate Scooty is played by a real-life denizen of motels just like The Magic Kingdom, Christopher Rivera, and many of the supporting cast are also locals of Kissimmee. Wee Prince’s performance is Oscar-worthy, followed closely by Vinaite’s and Dafoe’s. However, as often happens with the nominations, this little gem may well be overlooked. The look of the film is perfect, too, for its milieu. Award-winning cinematographer Alexis Zabé describes it as “blueberry ice cream with a sour twist,” and it’s a fitting description.
The Florida Project is a brilliant portrayal of the problems faced by many in the USA. In a country divided by wealth, it graphically shows how many face a life of uncertainty and yet manage to live lives that are not without passion, or compassion. Baker is quoted as saying, “I want viewers to laugh with, love and embrace these characters so much that they will go home, jump online and research how many U.S. families and children are growing up in motels across the country. That would be a truly magical thing”. A sobering request indeed…