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A colourful, honest tale about poverty and childhood wonder

A beautifully filmed movie with a strong message that reflects on hardship, family, childhood and friendship. Phillippa Dotters reviews The Florida Project.

BY Philippa Dotters

Childhood innocence and wonder takes the front stage of Sean Baker’s story that homes in on the hidden homeless population of Florida, just a stone’s throw away from Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The combination of an unforgettable narrative, phenomenal performances, stunning cinematography, impeccable direction and a striking use of colour make it a must-see film that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

The Florida Project revolves around six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a rambunctious child, blissfully unaware of her poverty-stricken circumstances, who runs wild with her own pack of little rascals, including Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Dicky (Aiden Malik), and new kid on the block, Jancey (Valeria Cotto).

While Moonee and her friends run amok, her young mother, irresponsible but loving Halley (Bria Vinaite) struggles to get by. Moonee and Halley are part of Florida’s hidden homeless population, who couch surf or find other temporary alternatives. In Moonee and Halley’s case, their alternative is a wonderfully pink, albeit rundown, motel, which sits a stone’s throw away from Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. From rebellious, cocky young Moms, loud, obnoxious males and active, mischievous children, many of these characters who reside in the motel appear unlikeable at the surface, but Baker makes it hard to hold a grudge.

Moonee, along with her friends, causes a mess of mischief, scamming tourists out of money for ice cream, spitting on cars and setting condo blocks on fire. Accompanied by a colourful vocabulary and rebellious behaviours that appear natural to her, one can only assume that she inherited her attitude and sass from her mother, who allows Moonee to run wild and leave a path of destructive, yet joyous chaos in her wake. For tired, yet down to earth motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), these kids are a pain, but even if find it hard to resist Moonee’s charm.

“Baker homes in on the precarious lives of these homeless, poor families who live close enough to Disney to watch tourists spend money on extravagant, wholesome family vacations that they themselves cannot afford.”

Of course, despite the joy the viewer sees in Moonee’s daily activities, life at the beautifully pink motel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Baker homes in on the precarious lives of these homeless, poor families who live close enough to Disney to watch tourists spend money on extravagant, wholesome family vacations that they themselves cannot afford.

“Through Moonee’s gaze, the motel turns into her own magical kingdom, full of hope, exploration and magic.”

Baker’s previous production, Tangerine, a budget break-out hit about a transgender sex worker, was unique in its production as it was shot completely on an iPhone. For The Florida Project, he opted for another unique mode of production. Like in Tangerine, he emphasises the brightest colours, creating an irresistible atmosphere that it’s hard to look away from. Shooting on 35mm, the pink walls of the motel look almost edible, wide shots beneath cloud-less blue skies and pink almost candy-esque sunsets allow the viewer to see the beauty in the run-down motel just as Moonee does. Using a more choreographed video style, Baker depicts a child’s sense of wonder through an observational shooting style, allowing the viewer to see poverty and family homelessness through the eyes of an innocent six -year old girl. Through Moonee’s gaze, the motel turns into her own magical kingdom, full of hope, exploration and magic. The viewer sees and experiences Moonee’s limited world view which stops her from fully experiencing the effects of living life in poverty, but also leaves her vulnerable, as things for Moonee and Halley aren’t always so smooth sailing, despite Moonee’s positive outlook.

Baker had a slightly higher budget for The Florida Project than he did for his previous film Tangerine, but he once again opted for first time actors and actresses, minus the brilliant Willem Dafoe, who delivered an honest and heartwarming performance and earned an Oscar Nomination for his role as motel manager Bobby. However, the best performances of the film come from the less experienced performers.

First time actress Bria Vinaite (Halley) stands out from the cast, literally, with her bright blue hair, but also through her performance. Vinaite is a spitfire, stealing every scene she is in and transmits a rebellious energy perfect for her character. Vinaite wasn’t an actor before The Florida Project, but Baker surrounded the story and the character of Halley around the vibe that she presented in her Instagram profile and then eventually asked her to take the role of the young, struggling mother. Vinaite, along with her on screen daughter Brooklynn Prince (Moonee) are truly a joy to watch and bring the screen to life when they are on the screen with their impeccable chemistry. Prince, six years old at the time of production, adds a joyous energy to every scene and steals the hearts of the audiences with her bright eyes, beaming grin and expressive face, and won a Critics Choice Award for her role. Prince, along with the other child actors are phenomenal and have a natural chemistry so strong that it’s easy to forget that the children are acting, and the film is not an observational documentary.

Moonee and her child are so full of childhood wonder and innocence, that it’s easy to forget their unfortunate circumstances while watching them run and play. It is through Halley’s struggle that the audience sees just how fragile Moonee’s situation really is. Baker emphasises the struggles of the homeless families who occupy one of many motels which appeared close to Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom upon it’s opening in 1971 and are now occupied by less tourists and more homeless, struggling families. The film shows the dark side of Disney, including family homelessness, unemployment and financial hardships with a sympathetic eye and doesn’t capitalise on representing the poverty-stricken families. The Florida Project has similarities in theme, narrative and production to 2017 best picture winner, Moonlight, which followed the story of a young boy also growing up, living with a drug addicted mother. Moonlight is another beautifully shot film set in Florida that find beauty in poverty-stricken environments. Both The Florida Project and Moonlight spend at least part of their running time looking at poverty through the eyes of a child, creating a raw, honest portrayal of poverty and childhood. Films about poverty are few and far between, making films like these all the more important.

The Florida Project carries a strong, and very important social message in the form of childhood imagination and wonder and somehow manages to be sympathetic towards its subjects, avoids exploitation but still critical of the system. With performances from Vinaite, Dafoe and Prince that will stay with you, spectacular filmmaking and impeccable directing, The Florida Project is a must-see film, one of the best from 2017.