For his latest snippet of understudied America, Sean Baker has switched coasts; he’s travelled from the orange sunsets of Los Angeles in Tangerine the Orange County for The Florida Project. He’s also gone from filming on an iPhone to production in 35mm, with a budget twenty times bigger. A technological leap this might be, The Florida Project remains a treasure by virtue of its simplicity and, vibrantly cinematic, authenticity.
Right from Truffaut to Linklater, childhood has always proved something an indie cinema mainstay, offering perspectives perched somewhere between innocence, naivety and narrational unreliability. In the case of The Florida Project, it is through the bright eyes of precocious six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Scouted – in a remarkable find – by Baker on Instagram, newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Moonee’s mother Halley, a waif of purple hair, immaturity and unfortunate habits, whose inability to hold down a job sees her resort to illegally selling perfume and, ultimately, prostitution. Halley is a young mum with love to spare for her daughter, but is a totally inadequate guardian.
Set in turreted shadow of Orlando’s Disneyland Paris, the film unfolds in the midst of its own ‘Magic Castle’, a hotel run by manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), in which Halley and Moonee are, illegally entrenched, permanent residents, the former scraping by with late weekly bills. It is hard to imagine a more perfect backdrop for Baker’s tale than this kitsch purple palace of dreams, beautifully caught by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, and disappointment – watch for the scene in which Bobby literally paints over the buildings cracks, part of a $20k beautification. As their own magical kingdom, the Castle is a paradisal playground for the film’s youngsters. They have free reign to run wild, share ice-cream and ogle the bountiful bosom of one, older, hotel guest who enjoys topless bathing by the communal pool. Giddy and fun, it’s every bit as true to childhood as Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In terms of plot, that’s largely it for the first hour or so – maybe for slightly too long. Baker has the confidence to enjoy a laissez faire approach, letting his cast lead the way in portrayals which feel breathtakingly real. Playing Moonee as an old-before-her-years miniature of her mother, Prince is outstanding in her first big screen role. Here is a child whose attitude, potty mouth and awful behaviour ought to be wholly unbearable; it is, thus, a mystery and a delight that the instant star should prove so winning: ‘The doctor said we’ve got asthma and we’ve got to eat ice-cream’. Hers is a performance reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin, or Gifted‘s Mckenna Grace, and is key to the film’s success. Not that the rest of the cast let the side down, with impressive turns from old-timer Defoe and newbie Vinaite alike.
Whimsy, of course, never lasts; autumn follows summer and sunshine turns to rain. Baker’s nuance in gradually picking of the traumas at work in the film – they’re always there, whether we notice them or not – is really rather exceptional. Bitter truths are unveiled in a series of heart-stopping moments of revelation that prove increasingly hard-hitting. Maintaining a low-shot child’s eye perspective on the events throughout echoes the similar naivety of Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, even if the tragedy is not, of course, comparable. When Moonee reaches the saturation point of what a child can emotionally take her response delivers a truly glorious finale.
Taking it’s name from the 1960s working title of Florida’s Walt Disney World, The Florida Project is an instagrammatic depiction of the harsh world that the Magic Kingdom alleviates. Picture perfect yet painfully engaging, it is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Theives for the modern day. Call it American neon-realism, perhaps; definitely go and see it.