Independent director Sean Baker wrote, directed and edited The Florida Project, a film that, just like its filmic predecessor, Tangerine, gives us an insight into a world rarely seen or portrayed in film and other media. It works as a companion piece to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, only here the teenage mother stays with her kid in a beautiful pink motel, barely getting by, and not seeming too bothered by it.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in the outskirts of Disneyworld Orlando with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in The Magic Castle, a cheap motel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Moonee spends her days playing with friends Dicky, Scooty and Jancey, and copying her mother’s “fuck the world” lifestyle philosophy. The summer is never-ending and for the kids, everything is an adventure – from spitting in cars, to turning off the motel’s power, to even entering abandoned houses near by and begging strangers for ice-cream money. Bobby watches them, a concerned and paternal figure for both Moonee and Halley, despite the young mother’s attitude being everything grateful.
Outside the American Dream, there lives reality. The scenes happen, one by one, not really in a classic narrative progression, but as random childhood memories of a very particular summer. This film couldn’t be further from poverty porn – these people, despite having no means, are proud, feisty, and refuse to let their condition grind them down. As the whole film is shot from Moonee’s perspective (even the camera is always at child’s height), poverty is not even directly focused. We can perceive it in the background, of course, the same way we perceive there’s something odd about the constant baths that the girl has by herself, but for Moonee, she and her friends are just enjoying themselves, the only way they can. The use of non-professional actors gives The Florida Project an extra layer of reality, and shows Baker’s incredible talent to get amazing performances from these children. The color palette, pinks and blues, straight from a fairy tale, adds to its child-like quality. It was shot in 35mm film, a rarity these days, by Alexis Zabe – who has done music videos for die Antwoord and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That is, except for the ending, illegally shot on an iPhone (very guerilla like). And though the ending won’t please everyone – spoiler: it dares to give an happy closure to a complicated and complex situation, though it may not even have happened – it does not feel out of place in a film where Defoe has a confrontation with giant birds and a topless woman.
Like the Bananarama song, it’s a cruel, cruel summer, but what a ride, guys, what a ride. Defoe has one of his best performances ever, in a role completely out of his usual evil type-casting, and the sun, the child’s laugher and the lost of innocence will stay with us long after the credits end.
The Florida Project was in UK cinemas from 10th November 2017.