Director Sean Baker had a significant success with Tangerine, which followed two transgender sex workers as one of them looks for the man who broke her heart. With The Florida Project he stays with people living a precarious existence, this time in the shadow of Disney World in Orlando.
The movie is largely set at a budget hotel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), where six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). It’s an insecure, day-to-day existence where there’s no security and where they must move out for a while once a month, as they’re not permitted to officially become residents.
Despite her youth, Moonee is given free-run of the area with her friends Scooty and newcomer Jancey. This allows her to get up to all sorts of mischief, especially as her wayward mother has no job and leads a rootless, responsibility-free existence. Mother and daughter don’t lack in love for one another, but Halley can’t even keep her own head above water, let alone properly look after a small child. However for Moonee, this is just her life.
As with Tangerine, Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch create something truly special by looking at their characters with empathy but not pity. Film has long had a tendency to deal with poverty in a rather patriarchal way, with a somewhat patronising, pitying viewpoint that has more to do with a voyeuristic desire to wallow in middle-class guilt (without actually having to do anything), rather than being true to the people depicted.
Baker doesn’t do that Though. Halley and many of the other ‘hidden homeless’ motel dweller are not presented as guilt-free victims, where the viewer is simply supposed to tut at the filmically contrived sadism of society towards them. They are difficult and angry, liable to bite the hand that feeds them and barely aware of how precarious their existence is. However, the film does not blame them. Instead it uses the mother-daughter dynamic to show how a lack of social knowledge and control can become almost dynastic. While Moonee is innocent and incredibly sweet – despite the trouble she gets up to – pretty much every ‘lesson’ from her mother will make it more difficult for her to function as an adult and to pull herself out of an insecure existence.
Likewise, most films like this would make the motel manager the villain – the face of capitalism that doesn’t care who it tramples underfoot. However, Bobby is the most responsible person in the whole film, looking out for his tenants and trying to ensure that at the very least the kids are kept safe. While Halley screams at him that he’s not her dad, he is the most stable male force in Moonee’s life and more responsible for keeping a roof over Halley’s head than she appreciates.
It’s a fascinating dynamic between the three of them that carries the viewer through the initially quite freeform narrative. It was Willem Dafoe that ended up with an Oscar nomination for his work in the film, but he arguably puts in only the third best performance after first-timers Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite. Young Brooklynn in particular is astonishing, giving an incredibly true-to-life performance that anchors the whole movie. In fact she may almost be too good, as she deserves to have been nominated for major awards, but is so naturalistic you forget she is giving a performance and isn’t really a kid who lives in a motel.
Thankfully the movie doesn’t overplay the fact that its tale of deprivation is taking place in Orlando, the world’s epicentre of high-priced theme park fantasy lands. This hovers thematically in the background though as a reminder of how far from a Disney life some people live, but that as a child it can be impossible to know the difference between what is real and what is fiction.
Overall Verdict: A beautifully constructed look at people living a precarious existence, given astonishing life by some brilliant performances and a vision that has empathy but not pity.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac