Film review | The Florida Project

The third film from Sean Baker is a funny and authentic look at the American underclass • 4/5

“Never work with animals or children” is an oft-trotted warning to whoever sets out to attempt a film or theatre production, even if both those things are likely to score you audience-friendly points in the long run. But for his third feature film after his 2015 breakout Tangerine – shot on a series of iPhones and drawing on the lives of the marginalised community of trans sex workers in Hollywood – writer, director and, crucially given the nature of his projects, editor Sean Baker doesn’t quite strike me as the type to shy away from a challenge.

Although there aren’t all that many animals in his latest film, The Florida Project – save for a memorable and pun-heavy avian encounter towards the end – kids feature aplenty. And not only that: the bulk of the action is framed from the closely-followed experience of the six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince); who lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in ‘The Magic Castle’ – a motel complex in Kissimmee, Florida. Overseen by the well-meaning but heavily put-upon Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe), the Castle’s array of economically compromised tenants paint something of stark picture; particularly given its location just outside that idyllic symbol of capitalist triumph and childhood bliss: Walt Disney World.

But Mooney and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) remain largely oblivious to the wider realities of their impoverished lives, making do with what they have to enjoy another summer of getting up to no good under the baking Florida sun. Then again, while she’s affectionate to a fault and endlessly indulgent with her daughter, Halley’s night-time activities threaten to catch up with her, and maybe even burst the little cocoon of happiness she’s managed to build for herself and her daughter.

In lesser hands, this would all have collapsed as a piece of avoidant gloss; a kind of sub-Benigni rosy-eyed vision of the American underclass rendered with button-pushing cliches and using kids to distract us from its faults with their clumsy cuteness. But from its loud opening frames – loud with both the kids yelling to get each others’ attention, as well as the brash colour schemes calibrated with apposite style by cinematographer Alexis Zabe – it becomes clear that Baker is taking no cheap short-cuts into this story, and is allowing the young actors to give the fullest possible breath to their characters.

Brooklynn Prince delivers an incredible performance – virtually on screen for the whole time and juggling a complex array of emotions, she more than transcends the “not bad for a kid” marker that often follows suit in these cases, and one can only imagine the sensitivity and time required to get all those beats right. Whether it was rigorous trial-and-error before the cameras rolled or – and this seems more likely – whether Baker simply let the kids do their thing with minimal direction and then pulled it all together at editing stage, the end result is a humane portrayal of the vagaries of childhood. Beyond the specifics of their situation, the games and initiation rituals the kids engage in are bound to trigger some long-forgotten memories, no matter who you are or where you’re from.

In tune with Baker’s modus operandi since Tangerine, most of the cast comprises of non-professional actors (with Instagram, apparently, serving as enough of a casting tool to get started), and he’s clearly a master at flipping that apparent shortcoming on its head. But Willem Dafoe serves as something of a dramatic fulcrum for the action, and it feels as though only an actor of his type – so varied and undiscriminating in his roles throughout the years, with such an idiosyncratic presence whether the project is trash or treasure – could have given his all to such a role.

A weary but nonetheless compassionate presence in the eye of this storm of humanity, he may just have pulled off a career best in a film that’s already brimming with many pluses.

The verdict

Committed to its vision in a way that could only falter after a stretch yet somehow – magically, miraculously – doesn’t, The Florida Project is about as perfect a sophomore effort from Sean Baker as things could possibly get, after the equally genuine and innovative Tangerine pinned him down as a force to be reckoned with. Heartfelt but unsentimental, it’s a film that doesn’t flinch from harsh reality. Instead, it presents an alternative to the representation of poverty that goes beyond patronising heart string-tugging cliches, and is likely one of the most powerful and convincing representations of the childhood experience ever to be filmed.