Ruairí McCann, Contributor.
The marginalised are typically the lifeblood of any film that bares even the most threadbare social conscience. ‘The Florida Project’ is no different, as its socio-economic preoccupations are fully realised, proudly worn on the film’s sleeve. A difficult subject has been woven into a playful and open-hearted picaresque that follows six year old Moonee, (Brooklynn Prince) her ragtag bunch of friends and her young, out-of-her-depth mother Halley. (Bria Vinaite) They live right outside of Disneyland, in next-to-no-income, temporary-made-permanent housing that takes the shape of a picturesque motel called The Magic Castle. One of the film’s many eye-popping locales that either exude the children’s minimal material conditions – as neoliberalism’s forgotten subjects, residing in adjacence to its, and their, dreamland – or perfectly encapsulate their near inexhaustible pre-adolescent wonder. All navigated through the prism of 35mm, a format which drips with humidity and renders a colour palette primary and pastel, with little attention paid to the arbitrary drabness some films feel they must adhere to when depicting people who spend their days just getting by.
Another tenet of miserablism that is thankfully avoided is a stony-faced seriousness. Director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch know how precious a sense of humour is when one possesses little else. The film proceeds in an episodic fashion, charting Moonee and the gang’s scrapes: a spate of Little Rascal-esque mischiefs that distract from the spectre of reality that lurks in the background, until it becomes impossible to ignore.
It is in casting where the film could have fallen apart, considering that many films featuring child actors run the risk of mawkishness or plain, old-fashioned cringe. Luckily that has not happened here, for Brooklyn Prince is uniformly excellent, perpetually sassy, quick witted and confident though frequently aware of her limited position and understanding when faced with very mature problems. She is ably supported by Valerie Cotta and Christopher Rivera as her best friends, Yancy and Scooty. The former is timid while the latter is all swagger and sway.
Cotta and Rivera, along with Bria Vinaite, have never acted before, while Prince has only a handful of credits to her name. Relatively inexperienced when compared to the filmographies of Willem Dafoe, who plays the motel’s world weary but solid and kind-hearted manager, and Caleb Landry Jones, who pops up for a scene or two as Dafoe’s son. Baker’s unfaltering ability to meld together actors with diverse backgrounds into a single ensemble is one of his most discussed talents, and deservedly so, for Dafoe feels just as much as part of this world as the motel tenants he administers.
The film’s form is exceptionally realised, perhaps understatedly so, for it sets out to serve all the big personalities that are on show. They are buoyed along by a tableau of expertly timed focus pulls and exactly framed tracking shots, with the occasional close-up, primed for when the characters are at their most vulnerable, and long shots whenever the children’s surroundings explored during their many walkabouts demand to be emphasised. A phantasmagoria of gaudy discount stores, diminutive ice cream stands, and housing developments gutted out and left to rot.
The filmmaking is also perceptive, and therefore reactive, to the characters’ emotional states. Particularly when Moonee and her mother’s situation gets even more desperate. The cinematography and pace of the movie alters drastically as is it becomes increasingly clear that the world that the film has gone to great pains to bringing to life is fit to burst again. That if reality won’t do that for us, we will have to survive by escaping into dreamland.
Director: Sean Baker
Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 111m