Sean Baker’s film debut Tangerine became a much-appreciated low-budget film. Shot with an iPhone, it introduced the director’s talent and his eye for nuances. And once again, he focuses on a story of a marginalised group – this time, turning the camera to the problem of hidden homelessness in The Florida Project.
Energetic Moonee is one of the victims of the crisis that forced many disadvantaged people to seek shelter in cheap motels. Her mum Halley struggles to pay the rent but is determined to keep her little girl happy, making their rented room as homely as possible. For the girl, it’s a place packed with little adventures regardless. She plays with her best friends in the maze of neighbourhood buildings, pranks the residents and checks up on adults. The colours of the motel and the laughter of the children surround us; pastel buildings shelter many people living in poverty, covering it up for visitors with a thick coat of Disney World happiness. Moonee shows us around this world, but her sweet naivety and cheerfulness can’t conceal the darker reality of the situation, staring at us from the dark corners of the Magic Castle.
Taking us into the world of people who were forced to make motels their homes just a few miles away from Disneyland in Florida, Sean Baker shows us their daily struggles and introduces to their community. Don’t expect pity, pigeon-holing the characters, or wallowing in despair either. The Florida Project’s director frames the story a bit like a mockumentary and allows us to discover this world hidden underneath the glitz of the theme park without judgements.
Like Baker’s previous movie, The Florida Project features many brilliant newcomers. Bria Vinaite plays a mother overwhelmed by her circumstances, with nobody to support her and virtually no opportunities of straightening her life path. At times, she seems to behave more like the girl’s teenage sister; Moonee often gets in trouble without the slightest hint of disapproval from her mother. But even if Halley clearly doesn’t have socio-economical means to give her girl a decent standard of life, she loves her daughter to bits; that’s why she decides to sacrifice herself to make sure her child doesn’t lack anything. Her character, burdened with difficult life choices to make, gives Vinaite a chance to introduce herself into the world of acting in style.
Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto play Moonee and Jancey, happy-go-lucky, smiley protagonists of The Florida Project. They have fun finding themselves things to do in an environment that isn’t the best setting for children to grow up in. However, they’re happy, because they don’t need much more than their friends and a handful of crazy ideas to escape the boredom. Running around, peeking at what adults do, dodging money for ice cream and causing mischief, they’re spending their summer joyously. These kids forget about poverty and difficulties of their lives using their imagination and keeping their innocence; the world hasn’t revealed to them yet where they are on the class ladder. We observe this place from a perspective of the little girl, which only gives more power to the details revealed indirectly.
There’s a handful of dreadful situations to surface as the film progresses, but thanks to the watchful eye of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a motel administrator, a lot of them end up as a near-miss. He portrays a man wearing his heart on his sleeve, who knows the inhabitants of the place he manages and cares about them far more than any social worker that stumbles upon the place. The actor keeps Bobby’s softer side shelled from the world, especially when other motel employees are around; he disciplines people and gives warnings when if he has to, but is also protective of the residents.
The Florida Project moves ahead slowly; the story focuses on characters and their experiences much more than on advancing the plot. We immerse ourselves in the lives of the occupiers of the motel rooms and absorb the atmosphere of the place. There are many components to it; the camera swings from the Magic Castle to luxurious hotels to contrast the world hidden away from the eyes of passers-by. The short snaps of shopping malls filled with “original gifts” or wholesale shops, or a lingering image of Billy smoking a cigarette under the cover of darkness, remind us to be conscious while looking at “the happiest place on earth”.
Allowing us to understand the characters by peeking over their shoulders right into their daily life, The Florida Project lures the audience in with charm and laughter to reveal much darker turns of the story as we progress. With promising performances from the newcomers and a truly phenomenal job from Willem Defoe, the film introduces the contrasts of the world swept under the carpet by everyone that fights to preserve its vital forces with ferocious passion regardless.
The Florida Project opens in the UK on the 10th of November 2017.