Xin Yi Wang reviews Sean Baker’s pastel-toned drama.
Laughter and screams in an intense game of catch, or quietly sitting on the pavement side by side enjoying ice cream cones with big smiles. These childhood memories capture a precious state of joyfulness that is seemingly lost to us once we grow older. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a beautiful portrayal of innocent times, bursting with energy that encapsulates a universal sense of childhood. A fresh, intricate piece driven by its strong characters, it is warming and heartbreaking without pulling any cliché strings.
We follow six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) as she turns the community of Kissimmee, Florida (a city next to Orlando) into her personal playground. Living with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in an extended-stay motel aptly named Magical Kingdom, Moonee’s up to small and big mischiefs with her friends over the summer, often to the headache of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
Baker, known for his previous feature Tangerine (2015), which he shot on an iPhone 5S, returns to the traditional camera in not only the role of director, but as the writer, editor and producer. In a wonderful feat, Baker reimagines the small, run-down city bursting with colours and saturation. The purples of Magical Kingdom in particular turn the motel into a fairy-tale haven, expanding the magic of Disneyland without the extravaganza of the theme park.
One can see how the tourist attractions of Orlando influence its neighbours, as Kissimmee boasts its Orange World (The World’s Largest Orange Store, a real place) or huge gift shops with giant wizard heads. It is strangely surreal to see how elements of fairy-tale theme parks take over entire urban and suburban areas, especially juxtaposed with the reality of poverty that our characters experience. It is a hub of diversity, of all cultures and ways of life, all cast under the fantastical shadow of Disneyworld and Universal Studios. It is a perfect backdrop and low-key social commentary for a character piece centred on a child and her single mother.
Outrageous but contained within the realistic attitude of owning the world, our small protagonist draws from an infinite pool of daring and boldness. In her first major role and her second ever picture, Brooklynn Prince as Moonee is a revelation. Child acting doesn’t get better than this – she is an unbelievable whirlwind, ecstatic, brave, innocent, stubborn, fearing, and fearless. Moonee is a problem child, yes, but she is also so much more, deserving of protection and happiness, a realistic child who is reflective of who we were once. She will break your heart and reduce you to tears.
Bria Vinaite is the second revelation of the film, an unmissable breakout in her debut screen performance. Halley is a product of poverty and a lack of guidance, but she is also a full-fleshed person who Vinaite commands with confidence. Her aggression and carefreeness are spectacular and perplexing, and as Halley grows more and more unhinged Vinaite becomes exponentially more mesmerizing to watch.
The absolute heart of the film is none other than the completely raw and realistic bond and chemistry between Vinaite and Prince. Mother and daughter cling onto each other for survival, the source of each other’s happiness and purpose. It’s them against the world – the film is about Halley as much as it is about Moonee, and the explosion of charisma and personality ensues.
The balance between serious, mature themes and the innocent of childhood is masterfully designed by Baker. Though similar to Room (2015) in allowing us to mainly see the world through the eyes of the child, Baker interjects this with perspectives of adults – to good measure. He doesn’t shy away from the dangers outside fantasy, subtly setting scenes that remind us that despite Moonee’s fearlessness, she is no different than other children. As Halley grows desperate to make ends meet, the fantasy is slowly eroded by reality, but while the film builds up to darker undertones it does not abandon its original magical quality, nor give in to any conventions of melodrama.
More importantly, The Florida Project does not pass entitled judgment on our characters. Though we know Moonee is a bad influence to her friends and her mother’s lifestyle is not well-suited for child-raising, we accept this as our reality. Their subtle homelessness and nomadic lifestyle is handled very well, never defining our characters though it is the driving force behind Halley’s motivations. This neutrality is best kept by Dafoe’s Bobby, who – though he has to deal with all the different mishaps of the film – remains a guardian and protector trying his best to provide for them. Dafoe’s nuanced performance is definitely a fresh turn from the only veteran actor of the cast, taking a leave from his more sinister roles to effectively counterbalance Prince and Vinaite’s fires.
This sets the final act as a hard ethical choice. As events spiral out of control, what would be objectively better for Moonee’s wellbeing? In a manner comparable to the final thematic question of Gone Baby Gone (2007), the audience is faced with implications in the future of Moonee’s life with no easy solution. Baker makes no promises and answers nothing – ending the film with a sequence as ambiguous as it is abrupt, giving the audience the power of final choice. It is entirely up to interpretation, despite the fact that any solid conclusion would be uncomfortable to come to.
The acting is superb, especially given the majority of the cast involved are newcomers to film. The children are completely naturalistic, and aside from Prince, Valeria Cotto (who plays her friend Jancey) is also outstanding. Mela Murder, playing Ashley, is highly memorable, and Caleb Landry Jones as Bobby’s son is a welcome presence.
Though The Florida Project does not set out to articulate any sense of nostalgia, one can be immediately transported back to happier childhood days characterised by quick-but-deep, innocent friendships and life without care. Threading between fantasy and reality, it resonates deeply, transforming what might have been a bleak, dramatized story about a family living under poverty to a heartfelt sense of wonder and genuine engagement. It is definitely not to be missed.
The Florida Project had its UK premiere at London Film Festival on the 13th of October. It is out now in cinemas. Check out the trailer below: