Tangerine, director Sean Baker’s last film, was shot on a series of iPhones, and ended up with four nominations from the prestigious Independent Spirit Awards. Two years later, the budding director is back with The Florida Project, which has captured critics’ hearts ever since its debut in Cannes. As the award season begins, we can bet that it will end up with a lot more than nominations. Nevertheless, with or without an Oscar, The Florida Project has already proven itself to be one of the most daring and original films released this year. With a wonderful cast of extremely talented child and veteran actors, it delivers a unique cinematic experience.
The film opens with breathtaking shots of rich vibrant colour, reminiscent of a fairytale world. We are then introduced to the adorably cheeky Moonee, a 6-year-old girl played by the stunning Brooklynn Prince who, according to Baker, is in the same category as a Jodie Foster. Prince flawlessly combines the innocence of a child and the maturity of an adult, as she leads her friends on their adventurous explorations around “The Magic Castle” and “Futureland”, hotels providing cheap accommodation to struggling families living barely above the poverty line. Disney World becomes a symbol of capitalism and wealth within the film. Despite being just beyond the estates, it lies hopelessly out of reach for the film’s protagonists.
If Baker had chosen to criticise the social system of America simply by emphasising the poor living environment of the lower class, The Florida Project would have just become another I, Daniel Blake, stuffed with political propaganda and slogans spelt out in the dialogue. What the film gives us instead however is a detached, yet sympathetic, gaze that simply observes the lives of its characters as they experience moments of happiness amongst the bleak reality of their circumstances. Halley (played by Bria Vinaite, who incidentally was discovered on Instagram and is now flagged as ‘one to watch’ out for in the future) is the seemingly irresponsible single mother to Moonee. However, she demonstrates a fierce love for her daughter as she struggles to survive in an unforgiving society that doesn’t take kindly to unemployed single mothers. As the film progresses Baker has his audience laugh and cry with his characters as we follow them on their day-to-day journey of survival. Halley’s descent–she is forced into prostitution in order to feed herself and Moonee–leaves the audience with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The sense of injustice within society is most strongly conveyed in the heart-rending moment of forced separation between Moonee and Halley after an intervention by the Government Agency, which appears more like an act of cruelty than care. Baker’s script may not have criticised the system directly, however actions speak louder than words and his attitude towards their treatment is made blatantly clear.
Apart from the strongly rendered depiction of the mother-daughter relationship between Halley and Moonee, another stand out aspect of the film is Willem Defoe’s performance as Bobby, the manager of “The Magic Castle” and the only reliable male character in the girls’ lives. Tough-looking with a rough manner, Bobby’s tender heart leads him to become a sort of stand-in paternal figure to the children in the estates, and in a certain sense Halley as well (even though she denies this viciously in a ‘high-school girl arguing with her father’ manner as seen in the trailer). On the surface, Bobby may seem to be just another loser. We see him sandwiched between his boss and the troublesome tenants and fail to connect with a distant son. However, Baker shows us that heroes do exist in the most unexpected places, and I am sure no one could resist cheering silently as a disturbing episode unfolds halfway through the film in which Bobby becomes a knight in shining armor and saves the day. Defoe’s heart-warming performance is a steady compass within a film largely comprised of new and child actors, and a nod from the Academy is reasonably expected.
The Florida Project is a beautiful, honest portrait of a not-so-good world as seen through the eyes of a child. Baker has sensitively captured the nostalgia for childhood and the pain of growing up in a way that is guaranteed to touch the hearts of his audience.