The Florida Project

Published on December 28th, 2017

The Florida Project

Starring Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite

Directed by Sean Baker

Reviewed by Michael Dalton

Rating: ★★★★★

Smoothly directed and superbly acted, The Florida Project, a straightforward study of life and innocence, is one of the year’s finest and most provocative films.

It all takes place over one summer in Magic Castle, a technicolour motel, managed by no-nonsense Bobby (Willem Dafoe), that neighbours Disney World and where mother and daughter, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and six year-old Moonee (an astounding Brooklynn Prince) share a room. Halley, when she’s not cruising the area with her daughter grifting, spends her days watching television, oblivious to and barely interested in her daughter’s adventures with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Together the trio explores the terrain, most notably an abandoned building where they smash windows and start a fire that sparks local interest. There’s little danger in the area. No bullies, pimps, or drug dealers but there is an unnerving moment when a pedophile wanders into the grounds (Dafoe’s method of dispatch may win him the Oscar) but unfettered, the children run wild.

Is there a story, a through line, to follow here? Not exactly. First and foremost, this is an adventure film where life itself is the adventure. The film is shot though with vibrant, summer colour and the action springs forth with bracing realism (in terms of visual appeal, it is the epitome of independent cinema). The idea for the film occurred to Baker when he was helping his mother relocate and he saw a number of motels occupied by families; he even hired some of those people to play background characters here and it shows. The film feels lived in, and obviously Baker wants us to feel like tenants, such is his personalized approach.

Some critics have accused Baker, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Bergoch, of empathising with his heroine’s mother, a lazy loudmouth of a scammer, who teaches her daughter how to dishonestly get past even the most basic necessities of life such as eating and earning money. I never felt Baker was asking us to take sides. In some scenes feeling like a scripted documentary, the film will undoubtedly polarise audiences but Baker keeps his position neutral.

Baker hit paydirt with his leading lady, Brooklynn Prince. This remarkably focussed little girl is a star, and there’s no moment here where she lets the character get away from her. I can barely remember a scene that doesn’t somehow involve Moonee. Even in scenes where she is required to simply look on, her character dominates the action. The spontaneous delivery of her dialogue is so acute you could be excused for thinking she improvised her performance. So determined is Baker to maintain Moonee’s perspective, he opens the film with Kool and The Gang’s party stomper Celebration. Childhood is the time of our lives and as you watch Moonee run into her future in the closing shot, you’ll get Baker’s point. It’s what every child dreams of.