REVIEW – ‘The Florida Project’

In 2015, director Sean Baker took our breath away with his raw and beautiful Tangerine, a film shot entirely on an iPhone, which you’d never know by looking at it. His follow-up comes with the kind of anticipation most directors would crumble under. And yet, The Florida Project matches everything he gave us with Tangerine, and somehow shines even brighter. This is a deeply special film that will capture you like few pieces of cinema have this year.

The Florida Project takes place in Kissimmeee, Florida, the ugly stepsister of Orlando, home of the epic colossus that is Walt Disney World. Kissimmee is home to an endless array of cheap motels, who once existed to snare the tourist market away from the classier digs found within Orlando, but now find themselves overrun by semi-permanent residents, living below the poverty line. Such is the case with the garishly purple “Magic Castle Inn & Suites” (a name clearly designed to fool unsuspecting guests) where we lay our story.

The Magic Castle is home to those with really nowhere else to go. Green-streaked hair and heavily tattooed young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, in a stellar debut) is struggling to get by, after losing her job at a local strip club. Her six-year old daughter, Moonee (a dazzling Brooklynn Prince) wouldn’t know it though. She’s far too busy enjoying her summer, getting up to all sorts of mischief with her fellow Magic Castle residents, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) plus new-found friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), from the nearby Futureland Inn – another motel with a misleading, Disney-esque title.

Halley, with the emotional maturity and demeanor of a bratty teenager (or even lower), was clearly never really meant for motherhood. With a cigarette never far from her lips, and a vocabulary consisting mostly of curse words and biting vulgarity, she’d much prefer to hang out with Scooty’s mother, Ashley (Mela Murder) than worry about how she’ll get the $35-a-night “rent” in on time.

Collecting that rent and overseeing the property is gruff but lovable Magic Castle manager, Bobby (a career-best Willem Dafoe), who seems to spend more time keeping an eye on these kids than their mothers do. While his stern, bossy demeanor may say otherwise, it’s not hard to see the kids bring out the sweetly paternal side of Bobby, even if they’re seemingly driving him mad with their shenanigans. But one wrong move from any of the motel’s guests, and Bobby is a true force to be reckoned with.

The narrative arc after our introductions to these characters is relatively light, which is in no means a criticism. We follow Moonee’s childish delight in the most mundane of events. Who needs theme park rides when you’ve got a great group of friends to play with? We enjoy the exploits of the other Magic Castle dwellers, and their interactions with Bobby, as he desperately tries to keep his beloved place of business in order.

But most of all, we bear witness to Halley’s self-destructive journey, as she begins to alienate everyone around her, including Ashley and Bobby. The film quietly follows event after event, flowing seamlessly from one to the other. But when Halley starts turning tricks to make ends meet, we’re heading towards a devastating conclusion we all know is coming, yet somehow hope will be avoided.

What makes this narrative so powerful is its real-world inspiration. Screenwriters Baker and Chris Bergoch based this script on the very real issue of homelessness and poverty in the Orlando area. For all the magic and wonder Walt Disney World projects, its genuinely alarming to see this side of the “happiest place on Earth” – a side most park guests would never know existed. It’s eye-opening, to say the least, especially for those who have visited Florida recently. This is happening, right under your noses.

But don’t expect some sort of woke, preachy, “how dare we let this happen” type message from this film. It never dares to offer solutions to this terrible problem, or even attempt to explain how or why it’s happening. Despite the misery surrounding our protagonists, they’ve accepted their reality, and so should we. Don’t pity them or hope to rescue them. They’d likely laugh and throw your charity right back in your face.

Baker and Bergoch’s screenplay is lively and vibrant, with the characters always making the utmost of their seemingly tragic lifestyle. And that is solely due to their deft choice to focus the plot squarely on Moonee. By presenting this film from the perspective of a child, we are only ever to really conclude the truth of her lifestyle from the subtleties of the events surrounding her she’s able to grasp onto. She knows something isn’t quite right with the way she lives, but the full extent is out of her reach, for now.

The success of this focus on Moonee falls to young Brooklynn Prince, who is a genuine revelation here, and should be amongst the chatter, come awards season. Prince instills such confidence and cheekiness to Moonee. It’s impossible not to adore her. Moonee has clearly inherited her mother’s firecracker nature, but with the sweetness of a child, it’s never offensive or off-putting. She’s a true boss, and you best just follow along, which we, as an audience, happily will. When reality strikes, in the film’s climax, she will also completely break your heart, with genuinely gut-wrenching emotion. Prince’s performance is a true force of nature, one well beyond her years. It doesn’t hurt that she is just so adorably cute too.

In only her debut performance, Bria Vinaite, discovered by Baker on Instagram, of all places, is a star in the making, with a startling and powerful performance as Halley. Despite all her crass and attitude, Vinaite gives genuine humanity and desperation to Halley, and it’s impossible not to want her to succeed. Despite her misgivings, Halley clearly loves her daughter, and wants to be a better mother. She just has no idea how to. There’s a captivating energy to Vinaite, and you cannot take your eyes off her, no matter how offensive Halley is being. And be warned – she gets offensive.

But the real star here is Willem Dafoe, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Bobby, the film’s true heart. Bobby is a man torn between his obligations of running a business and his unmeasured caring for families and children who really should only be viewed as paying customers. One scene involving Bobby dealing with a potential pedophile, who gets a little too close to the kids on the property, is utterly magic to watch. Dafoe gives Bobby such a constant, deep sadness, as he watches his motel guests from the sidelines, knowing he can never truly save them, as much as he’d like to. His empathy for them is our empathy, and we find ourselves feeling very much like Bobby, as we continue to also watch from the sidelines. His achievement here is the best he’s given us in years, and he must be at the top of the Supporting Actor race.

Freed from the constraints of his iPhone, Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe give this film a glorious visual style, with a wonderfully vibrant bubblegum-hued palette of colours. And not just at the Magic Castle. The film’s location shooting is an absolute delight, with the most garish and bizarre buildings constantly taking centre stage. Buildings that could only be found in Florida, like a sundae-shaped ice cream store, a waffle house in the shape of a giant orange, or a tacky discount gift shop with a giant wizard dominating its shop front. For all its visual wonder, it’s easy to forget this film is about themes like poverty, prostitution, and child abuse.

The spectre of Disney is ever omnipresent in The Florida Project, as if its a character all in its own. Halley and Moonie wander constantly past a street sign for “Seven Dwarfs Lane,” yet never venture down it. Moonie’s favourite toy is an Orange Bird plush, a mascot character from the theme park. To celebrate Jancey’s birthday, Halley and Moonie take her to a field behind the park to bathe in the Magic Kingdom’s elaborate fireworks, as if they were exploding just for their birthday celebration. Even the film’s title is a Disney reference in itself. Prior to his death, ‘The Florida Project’ was Walt Disney’s working title for his vision of an experimental Orlando-based theme park of the future.

These wonderfully subtle references remind us of how close these impoverished characters are to the magic and wonder of the theme parks, yet never close enough to experience it first-hand. It’s a world of indulgence and affluence they will likely never know. On the flip side, the downtrodden lives of Halley and Moonie is a world those inside the parks are also completely unaware of. Any time we’re reminded of this jarring juxtaposition, it’s like a cold slap in the face, even if the children of The Magic Castle are blissfully unaware.

Moonie’s story could even be said to mirror something akin to a Disney princess. A charming young girl, sweet and naive, who somehow thrives, despite her lack of an ideal parental setup, never seeing the sadness of the world surrounding her. Sadly, much like all Disney princesses, that facade will eventually be shattered by reality. Ironically enough, Moonie won’t find her escape in the one place all Disney princesses usually retreat to – the Magic Castle.

The Florida Project is a film you cannot look away from. For all the characters’ faults, they are an empathetic group of misfits who you could spend endless hours watching, and yet want more. With Baker’s brilliant directorial skills, this is the most genuine and honest depiction of childhood (and parenthood) we’ve seen since Boyhood. Much like life, The Florida Project is dark yet fun, joyous yet devastating, but, above all, one of the year’s absolute finest films.

★★★★★

The Florida Project is currently screening at the Adelaide Film Festival, and will open nationwide on December 21.

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