Director: Sean Baker
Starring: Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto
Length: 1hr 51m
Rarely do films contain a great, big-hearted warmth and happiness whilst also being crushingly sad and openly challenging. It is an odd mix that could easily create an uneasy balance of tones and become inaccessible to audiences. Sometimes, however, a film comes along that plays with our expectations of genre and tone, without really seeming to do so; a film comes along that is so funny and innocent, yet so realistically bleak in its depiction of life, that it captures the hearts of those who see it. That film, this year, is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
Baker’s name will have been on the radar of many a fan and critic of the cinema since his much-acclaimed breakthrough Tangerine. Telling the story of a transgender prostitute in LA, Baker’s film gave a voice to a group and a story not normally told in the cinema. Here, he does a similar thing, shining a light on a bit of Florida many of us didn’t know existed.
In his post-screening Q&A at the London Film Festival last month, Baker was keen to make the point that The Florida Project is inspired by real events – real events that have happened, are happening and will continue to happen if we don’t do something about it. The film highlights a crisis in housing that has forced many people, including families, to live temporarily in budget motels just outside of Disneyland. It is a fantastic world to make a film in and results in some wonderful cinematography from Alexis Zabe. The bright, block-coloured motels and the literal shadow of consumerism that is cast over the lives of the film’s characters make for stunning satirical viewing.
This great-looking world would be nothing without its characters, however. Grounded in honest, naturalistic performances, the film’s heart comes from the day-to-day lives of the people who live here. Much of the film’s running time is spent on the children. They are led by Brooklynn Prince’s Moonee, the vivacious core of the film’s humour and humanity. Throughout the film her and friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) run about the motels, play pranks and get ice cream money from strangers. No matter how much trouble they get in, there is an innocence and levity to their lives. The film’s darkness comes from what is happening at home, so their undashed optimism and energy comes to feel so hopeful and joyous. They’re also, much of the time, very funny, as Moonee snaps back to the adults with outrageous confidence.
[Halley] is possibly the most interesting and complex character in the film, making the emotional gut-punch of her and Moonee’s story all the more compelling.
The lives of the adults are decidedly more complicated. Baker spends most of his time with Moonee’s mother Halley, played with wonderful authenticity and emotion by Bria Vinaite. Halley is funny, relaxed and charismatic, but she is also poor and quite possibly a very poor parent. Jobless and behind on her rent, Halley makes money however she can, first selling dodgy perfume to tourists, then stealing Disneyland tickets and other questionable practices. She loves her daughter and her daughter loves her, but the lifestyle seems unsustainable and it pains us to see not one, but two, young lives destined for such upsetting conclusions. Halley is a young single mother who has not grown into her parental or adult role yet; she, like all the characters in the film, commands our sympathy but is not without her flaws. She is possibly the most interesting and complex character in the film, making the emotional gut-punch of her and Moonee’s story all the more compelling.
There is fascination to be found on the edges of the film too. The strained friendship between Halley and Mela Murder’s Ashley adds another intriguing, funny and brutal relationship into the mix. Then there is Bobby – kind, helpful, tired Bobby. Willem Dafoe turns in a great soulful performance as the manager of the motel the characters call home. He sees the pain and problems in the lives of the motel’s inhabitants and cares for and protects them, but won’t take too much shit either; he has to do his job or he himself will fall on hard times. A film with complex morals and devoid of heavy judgement, Bobby is the embodiment of this mix of realism and good-natured empathy. One of the film’s few weaknesses is perhaps that Bobby is too kindly-nice-guy and becomes slightly one-dimensional.
The plot of the film is fairly slim, meaning that the action feels like a collection of scenes, an amalgamation of snippets of the lives of these families. This can very easily be a negative comment i.e. “it’s a collection of good scenes, not a good film”, but that is very much not the case here. We are eavesdropping on the private conversations and public battles of the film’s characters, learning a great deal about their world in the process. We see only a snapshot, albeit an important one, of these people’s story – the fact that the pain, the innocence and the joy for the children will continue long after, and that the rest of their lives will be moulded by the events of the film, is one of its most powerful elements.
With his hard-hitting realism and refusal to shy away from the pain in life, whilst also having a political message, Baker’s film could have become preachy and depressing. Yet by focussing on the children, he makes it uplifting in its own way. This bittersweet tone that accompanies the childhood narrative is then brought to a perfect head in the exhilarating ending, a glorious synthesis of style and substance. Its soaring music and sped-up action are completely detached from the style of the rest of the film, but what this does is intensify the slowburn themes and emotions of the whole film in a single take. The joy, the hopes, the dreams and the crushing realities of life – it’s all there, and it’s one of the best films of the year.