Delicate yet unflinching, The Florida Project is a harsh depiction of the American life of poverty, exquisite in its execution.
Over the last few years, the more British and European sensibilities of realist filmmaking have begun to clearly influence the American independent scene. The likes of The Descendants, Manchester by the Sea and Boyhood have focused not necessarily on having the most gripping of plots, but instead on the narrative of everyday life, they tap into humanity in its simplest and realest form, presenting strikingly humane and relatable works in the process. Tangerine director Sean Baker, it would seem, is another talented young filmmaker influenced by this growing trend. His latest, The Florida Project, captures a snapshot of life in a very specific area of American society in its grittiest and purest form.
In the shadow of Disneyland, we follow six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives in an extended-stay motel community with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). The story of The Florida Project is just this, an observation of one girl’s life in harsh circumstances. Like Hell or High Water for 2016, The Florida Project is unmistakably of its time, 20 years from now you could show this film to someone and they would know that it was set in this moment. Such is the unflinching honesty and realism of the film, Baker is a minimalist in his approach yet it works wonders to convey this story.
Brooklynn Prince is a dynamo on screen, she conveys Moonee with endearing charm and perfectly encapsulates the confidence and cheek of the little girl. But as the film progresses and Moonee’s situation alters, Prince’s swagger makes way for a deer-in-the-headlights-type innocence which highlights further the heart-breaking nature of Moonee’s world and the harsh truth that this is the reality for so many people. So much of The Florida Project is centred on this theme of innocence and the cruel hand that life has dealt for some, Prince emphatically delivers a performance that taps into a child’s obliviousness to such circumstances. If Moonee’s arc and stature in this world is heart-breaking by itself, then Halley’s story heaps on the devastation and ties us closer into the film’s emotional basis. Bria Vinaite’s Halley is much like Moonee; young, carefree and full of swagger, but also having to face a tough life. As Halley’s life begins to disintegrate and the bond between her and Moonee is tested, our sympathies are divided; this is a delicate life, one afflicted by bad decisions made for the greater good. Prince and Vinaite are one of the finest on-screen combos in years.
But there is someone who attempts to hold it together for everyone when it all falls apart; Willem Dafoe’s motel manager Bobby. The stern faced, yet kind hearted Bobby becomes the de facto father figure of the motel for many, both child and adult. Dafoe is at his absolute best here, he injects a beacon of hope-like personality into Bobby but also portrays the inner conflict of a man who has to bend the rules so much for those he feels responsible to protect, he is both helpful and helpless at the same time and it is agonising.
For such a simple film, The Florida Project is exquisitely shot and coloured, the purples, pinks, oranges and greens popping in every frame. There’s something euphoric about the visuals, the wonderment a reflection of the playpen world of Moonee and her friends, the long takes and tracking shots from cinematographer Alexis Zabe giving us an uninterrupted passage into their world. Alongside Baker’s editing, the duo also manages to construct the year’s best ending as well.
A more human and grounded film this year you will not find, The Florida Project is crushingly real and unflinching in its depiction of life. A powerful tale of the loss of innocence and the struggle to carve something out of nothing, Sean Baker’s second directorial offering is one for the ages; a snapshot of an America perhaps not as great as some would have you believe, but one that offers a glimmer of hope in its most desolate moments. The Florida Project is simply stunning.
The Florida Project (2017), directed by Sean Baker, showed as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival, further information can be found here.