Set amidst the garish motels and soulless concrete of out-of-town Orlando, The Florida Project dramatises the contrast between the Disney childhood dream and the harsh reality of living on the breadline. With its natural acting and gritty realism, the film casts its own spell, finding magic in the mundane and humour in its characters and landscape.
Six-year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) lives with mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle, a motel near Disney World painted the colour of Palma Violets sweets. Mostly left to her own devices over the summer holidays, she runs wild with her friends, getting up to fun and mischief in the ‘playground’ of their own neighbourhood.
Filmed using hand-held cameras The Florida Project has a documentary feel to it and writer-director Sean Baker coaxes marvellously unselfconscious performances from his cast. Moonee is allowed to be herself: fun-loving, funny and fearless. She charms strangers into giving her money for ice-creams (‘the doctor says we have asthma, so we have to have ice cream’) and takes new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) on a guided tour of their ‘purple palace’ home, introducing neighbours (‘that woman’s married to Jesus’) and explaining that ‘no one uses the elevator cause it smells of pee’.
Moonee has a loving relationship with her mum, one that seems more like that of sisters. But Halley is more teenager then responsible adult – she is rebellious, bolshy and rude – and some of this rubs off on Moonee, who is encouraged to flip the finger to the frequent police helicopters that mark the area out as a crime hotspot. As the film goes on Halley’s struggle to make ends meet becomes more dark and desperate, as does her behaviour.
Landlord Bobby (Willem Defoe) is the moral centre of this world, a good man trying to look after his people. He acts as a surrogate Dad to the kids, keeping an eye on them and trying to fix any problems that arise. But can he fix Halley?
From a child’s eye view this Florida is a weird and wonderful theme park landscape, full of gaudy murals and monstrous plastic creations – Orange World and the wizard in a hat gift shop. The kids love their ice creams and Barbie dolls but they are far from spoilt. They also appreciate nature whenever it shows them its magic – a rainbow, a rain shower or a picnic under a beautiful old tree.
Baker juxtaposes a sign for a shop called Machine Gun America with the incongruous appearance of a flock of cranes outside the motel. There is always hope, he seems to be saying: nature finds a way. Tenderly, and with exaggerated courtesy, Bobby escorts the birds off the premises.
For a film that shows us childhood under threat from poverty and poor parenting, we worry how The Florida Project will end. Sean Baker succeeds in pulling a rabbit out of the hat, wrong-footing the audience with a finale that takes the breath away. Filmed on an iPhone, as was the whole of his debut feature, Tangerine, this sequence will surely come to be acclaimed as one of cinema’s great endings.