“Childhood means simplicity. Look at the world with the child’s eye – it is very beautiful.” Kailash Satyarthi
In Sean Baker’s excellent The Florida Project we see the glorious, almost technicolor world through the eyes of six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who is living below the poverty line in post-election America. However, she doesn’t see a bleak world where the working class have to scrape by just to pay the motel room bill for one night, she sees a world full of adventure and awe.
To be young is to see the beauty in the world, and this is what Baker so effortlessly captures in this gem of a film. The film dazzles, but is steeped in realism, a cross between Tim Burton and Ken Loach. There is a dirty grimness to the sunshine landscape of Florida, which to the soft millennial generation would be their idea of hell, but to the generation alpha Moonee and her merry band of friends it offers excitement, entertainment and wonder.
Director Baker has already scored critical success with his brilliant little indie flick Tangerine (2015), which was shot on i-Phone, and he’s not afraid to try new things. He makes sure that his camera is more than just a passive onlooker and allows it to become its own character.
The real world of The Florida Project would make a grown man cry, dirt poor citizens reduced to living in sleazy down ridden motels as they tried to make money in whatever way possible. And in the hands of someone else, The Florida Project could have ended up a very different film, one lacking in humour and humanity. However, Sean Baker has created a careful balance between tragedy and comedy, he isn’t afraid to trend on the dark side showing us a drunken brawl taking place in the motel car park. But he manages to show us how magical life can be, when we join Moonee showing her new friend a fallen down tree which still has green leaves. Even when the situation looks dire, a fallen tree can still offer beauty and hope.
Brooklynn Prince runs away with the film, her acting is truly genuine, and she shines like a real star. Her performance reminded me of the smart wittiness and charm of Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon (1973), however Prince has more sass and is more streetwise. There is already Oscar buzz that she is 2017’s hottest contender for best supporting actress, which needs to happen if there is any justice in this world. She’s a fearless child who has more guts than most adults, and she is an unlikely inspiration (people, we need to be taking a leaf out of her book).
Prince is not the only actor that gives a noteworthy performance, 24-year-old Bria Vinaite as Halley (Moonee’s mother) is a pro at this whole acting lark despite having no previous acting experience whatsoever. Amazingly Baker simply came across her Instagram account and reached out. She’s feisty, real and tough but reveals she has a vulnerable soft side to her. She’s not your average bad Mom, she has a good heart but she’s just a child herself. We know very little about her past, but that’s what makes her character so interesting, it’s not about her troubled past, it’s about her troubled present. She is a victim of the failed welfare system but don’t you dare say that to her face. Vinaite is the opposite of a snowflake, she’s a tough shard of ice.
Willem Dafoe is surely a hot contender for best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bobby, the manager of the motel. He’s the father figure for the children, keeping an eye out for them and saving them from sexual predators, a fallen guardian angel if you will. He also takes pity on Halley and is often the only ‘normal’ functioning adult around, and that’s saying something! It’s charming to witness just how much Bobby cares about his rundown motel, painting it purple so it becomes a brilliant contrast from the swampy Florida setting. Dafoe is warm, witty and human in this role and it’s great to see him shaking off the ‘comic book villain’ image. Honestly, there is not a mediocre performance from any of the performers in this film.
Perhaps, what makes The Florida Project truly memorable is it’s glorious scenes set in the daytime which were shot on 35mm film, creating an almost super 8 home film feel, only in the world of The Magic Castle motel, summer lasts forever. This is a film that will only get better with age, it’s a timeless classic and I can only urge you to see it. It’s so refreshing to have a film-maker like Sean Baker on the scene and I’m waiting eagerly to see what he has to offer us next. Keep up the good work, Sean!