In the shadow of “the happiest place on earth”, life is both a struggle and a wonderland.
After the creatively audacious, yet wonderfully freewheeling Tangerine, director Sean Baker now turns his attention to the unexplored underbelly of America; geographically perhaps only a stone’s throw from Orlando’s most famous attraction, yet in reality, worlds apart.
Whilst the film’s setting – the real-life unassuming “Magic Land” motel – may lie in the shadows of the Magic Kingdom, its young inhabitants aren’t going to let their circumstances quell their search for adventure and fun.
Focusing on the children, in particular Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), The Florida Project is in some ways the antithesis to the stereotypical “American Dream”, yet far from being an American Nightmare, the motel and its surroundings become an endless world of opportunities for the kids.
Frequently shown from their perspective, the sense of heightened reality and the childlike view of the world is brought to life in the garish technicolor wonderland. The eye-popping candy colours and gorgeous cinematography in this film are expertly used to highlight the heightened senses of a child with the colours turned all the way up to 11. The effect is quite frankly dazzling and, from start to finish, this is a beautiful thing to look at.
The kids are undoubtedly the star of this show, and in particular Brooklynn Prince who plays Moonee is absolutely wonderful. With acting skill far beyond her years, this is genuinely one of the best child performances in recent memory. What is so wonderful is how Sean Baker is able to draw out such believable and organic performances from his young actors. The film feels unscripted, improvised almost, and this only adds to that air of authenticity.
Using a mixture of non-actors, real residents of the motel, and the recognisable face of Willem Dafoe as motel manager Bobby, The Florida Project at times feels like it could be a documentary which offers a wonderfully unique perspective. These characters and this world feels so real, that is genuinely a joy to spend time in it.
There’s no shortage of laugh out loud moments, however a very clear distinction is made between the “kids world” and the “adults world”, which is part of what makes this film so memorable. It manages to shine light on the very honest and very heartbreaking reality that these characters (and the real people who inspired them) are going through. The jarring switch to the adult perspective, and the struggles for money and genuinely devastating things they will do at their most desperate moments, prove a stirring and necessary contrast to the kids exploits.
In a remarkably accomplished performance for a non-actor, Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee’s mother Halley, does an incredible job of representing the downtrodden, the desperate and the forgotten characters in society, whose struggle with life below the poverty line is not usually explored to this extent. Barely an adult herself, there is a believable and wonderful relationship between her and her daughter, and the performance she gives is utterly heartbreaking in truly unexpected ways.
In the absence of a father figure, or indeed any significant male role models in the kids’ lives, Dafoe does a wonderful job of playing the somewhat unwilling father figure. Despite the frustrations of running after the unruly kids, he also genuinely cares about the families who have taken up residence in his motel and he gives a fantastically warm and honest performance. An entirely improvised scene of him interacting with some birds on his premises is almost worth the admission price alone.
With the perfect balance of joy, wonder, and heartbreak, The Florida Project is simply a beautiful film to spend time with. It’s unique perspective, gorgeous visuals, and exceptionally wonderful and likeable performances, help it to stand above the rest. This is “the happiest place on earth” as you’ve never seen it before, and it is every bit as magical in its own unique way.