The Florida Project, 13th December 2017
I missed out on Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, shot entirely on an I Phone camera. It was on the “to-see at the cinema list” but I failed to get round to it. More fool me. This clearly needs to be put right based asap based on The Florida Project. This really is a very fine film. Mr Baker, and co-writer Chris Bergoch’s, story of people living on the margins of Walt Disney World, (the grimly ironic Seven Dwarfs Lane), in Florida, both geographically and economically, is an immensely humane film which tellingly points up the divide in modern America. And this reality of living on the edge is only made more vivid by being largely seeing through the eyes of a child.
Halley, (an astonishing debut performance from Instagrammer Bria Vinaite), does what she has to support herself and 6 year old daughter Moonee, (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince, a veritable acting veteran at just 7). Selling knock off perfume, pinching passes to Disney World and re-selling them and, eventually, having no option but to sell herself. Friend Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at the local diner, helps out with smuggled out leftovers, and kind, and infinitely patient, motel manager Bobby, (William Dafoe who wisely refrains from stealing the show), watches over mother and daughter. Halley’s justifiable pride and desperation lead her to, sometimes, to reject the help of others. In the end she, unsurprisingly, breaks.
Much of our attention though is focussed on the Twainesque adventures of sassy Moonee, Ashley’s son, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and new arrival Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Whilst I would hesitate to call their childhood innocent, these are the scenes where Mr Baker’s vision, along with cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who mixes digital with 35mm film, is most effectively conjured up. The ice-cream pastel colours of the motels, and the other outlets and buildings that make up this part of Kissimmee, contrast with the brilliant blue skies, sugar-sweet, urban sunsets and the surrounding grasslands which are reclaiming any abandoned lots. It is, as it is intended to be, magical. Indeed it is the “real” Magic Kingdom inside the park where Moonee and Jancey sardonically escape to at the unresolved end of the film. (Shot in secret apparently: no way the Disney behemoth was going to be sullied by this project).
Mr Baker is a detached observer. There is no attempt to romanticise the plight of Halley and the other residents of the motel, nor to elicit our pity or anger. That is not to say that you won’t feel for Halley and Moonnee, just that Sean Baker doesn’t engage in the typical Hollywood emotional hand-wringing. There is no real plot: it doesn’t matter though. The mix of shots, the use of first time actors and real life authority characters, the accumulation of small but telling scenes, the presence of the other, richer America, literally yards away, (the drone of helicopters flying tourists in and out is ever present), all add up to a memorable whole. I particularly liked the rising panic on the faces of the honeymooners who accidentally booked themselves into the motel, the reaction of the residents to the arson of a nearby abandoned condo block and the way Bobby dispatched a nervous predator.
The “Florida Project” was apparently Walt Disney’s code-name for the original ideas for Disney World. The motel may not look exactly like the infamous “projects’ of inner-city America but the play on words is still acutely apposite. The fantasy of the original purpose for which this environment was first created stands in stark contrast to the economic reality of today. Many coastal resorts in the UK share this destiny.
Great idea, great eye, great film, perfectly wrought. I doubt there has ever been a film with better mother-daughter performances. I can’t recall any. Go see.