The Florida Project is not an easy watch, focusing on a sector of the population denied and mocked by the American Dream. Unmissable for the phenomenal performances, especially that of first-time child actor Brooklynn Prince, and the perfect symbolism of the heartrending final scene.
With the silly season in full swing, I’m going to have to rush this review of The Florida Project. Better rushed than not at all, though – this is the most haunting film of the year for me.
Central to the power of The Florida Project is its sense of realism. The pace is languorous, the narrative meandering, and nothing much happens – until it does. Writer/director Sean Baker (Tangerine) has elected to use actors with no experience for two of the lead roles: Brooklynn Kimberly Prince plays 6yo Moonee and Instagram star Bria Vinaite her single mother, Halley. The strategy has paid off quite brilliantly. Both are so natural in their character portrayals, so believable, you feel you could be watching ‘real people’ in a fly-on-the-wall doco.
The setting is a purple-painted budget motel in Orlando, Florida. Originally intended to accommodate visitors to the nearby Disney World, the apartments are tenanted by dispossessed people caught in the welfare cycle – typically, grandmothers left to look after the kids of absent parents, and single Millennial mothers like Halley, struggling to pay the rent and feed Moonee and herself. Permanent residency is forbidden, and to get around this the tenants must move elsewhere for a night every month. It’s an undignified and stupid arrangement, but no doubt based in reality.
Halley’s a frustrating figure. She’s intelligent and capable, but spends much of her days lolling about on her bed munching junk food and watching TV. She smokes the occasional joint, and ventures out when necessary to hustle wealthy patrons of Disney World. When things get really desperate, she turns tricks, shielding Moonee by installing her in the bathroom and turning up the radio. It doesn’t take much to rile her, sometimes to the point of violence (she never mistreats Moonee, however).
She comes across less as the product of an impoverished background than a spoilt middle-class runaway who is yet to mature out of an adolescent rebellious phase. Whatever, she’s a terrible role model for her daughter. And yet, it’s clear she loves her. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is her attempt to throw Moonee a special birthday party – celebrating with a cupcake with a single candle, they sit outside in a field on a rug watching the Disney World fireworks. (That sounds like Dickensian sentimentalism, but it’s not; as with the film as a whole, the emotional power of the scene derives from its sense of authenticity, rather than overt directorial manipulation).
Thus, Halley induces a mix of conflicting responses ranging from contempt to compassion. Her love for Moonee is her saving grace.
The main focus of the film is Moonee. Indeed, much of it is shot from her point of view. It’s the beginning of the summer holidays, and like any 6yo kid she delights in her freedom, which is virtually unchecked. There’s a funny but appalling scene early in the film when she and a couple of her little accomplices amuse themselves by spitting on a car from the second floor. When discovered by the protesting owner, Moonee responds by calling her a fat biatch.
The only brake on her sometimes feral behaviour is applied by the beleaguered but kind-hearted motel manager Bobby (a wonderful Willem Dafoe, who surely must be a contender for a Best Actor Oscar for this performance). Bobby takes on a parental role as far as possible. He’s both disciplinarian and guardian, at one point chasing off a paedophile manouvering towards the kids.
Moonee might be a little shit at times, and her precociousness an irritation, but there is no denying her spirit. And her child’s capacity and that of her buddies to find excitement and magic in the drab surrounds melts all resistance. Much of the success of the ultimately irresistibly endearing Moonee character is down to Brooklynn Prince. Kids are always naturals as actors, but Brooklynn is special. Here, she’s turned in one of the all-time great child performances.
The Florida Project is not an easy watch, and although it’s hardly a long film at 111 minutes, it could have done with a little trimming back. However, the tremendous performances from Brooklyn (in particular), Dafoe in career-best form and Vinaite, and the shattering and symbolically perfect final scene (which I won’t elaborate upon, except to say it is still revisiting me weeks later) make this truly unmissable.
Movie Website: http://floridaproject.movie/
Australian release date: The Florida Project in Australian cinemas from 21 Dec 2017.
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