Directed by Sean Baker
Starring Brooklyn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Mela Murder, Caleb Landry Jones, Christopher Rivera
BFI London Film Festival Review by Chris Olson
With the same societal fracturing that made American Honey such an indie success, The Florida Project from filmmaker Sean Baker (co-written with Chris Bergoch) is a purposeful exploration of childhood and community, through the eyes of wayward girl Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her reckless yet doteful mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).
Willem Dafoe stars as a put-upon motel manager (think Basil Fawlty goes Stateside) who spends most of his days picking up, and taking, shit from the guests. Numerous families live on the premises, and there are severel other establishments in the vicinity, creating a chaotic community of classless dregs. These rundown buildings all exist in the looming shadow of Disney world, a particularly poignant comment on the economic disparity at play. The story mainly hones in on the experiences of several kids over the summer break, who are living in this cheap and not-so-cheerful motel, and in particular Mooney and her mother. The two enjoy plenty of raucaus antics and unseemly shenanigans, whilst engaging in enough shady money-making schemes to pay their rent.
By exploring this microcosm of broken society through the eyes of innocent (if disobedient) children, The Florida Project manages to achieve a heightened sense of sympathy for the characters within. Whilst many may look at the "parenting" of Halley with repraochful eyes, it becomes undeniably tragic that this mother and daughter are held at arms reach by the forces that "manage" them. Even Dafoe's character's limitless affection and patience as a surrogate father figure, whilst tested constantly, isn't enough to hoist the pair and others like them out of the gutter they have been kicked into. This social-realism genre is becoming increasingly potent and filmmakers that approach these stories are often gifted with an incredible knack for tapping into convincing characterisation. This is most definitley true for Baker (who also directed Tangerine), who occupies an uncomfortable grey area in terms of heroes and villains, in particular Halley who is not painted at all as being likeable, but you cannot help but attempt to rage for her.
Much like the aforementioned American Honey, this film demands a degree of patience from its audience. There is a shambolic structure to the plot which immediately alienates a large percentage of a potential audience, plus the shaky camerawork and short-cut editing will be enough to deter mainstream viewers. For those that partake in this kind of cinema, though, there is an enourmous amount of cheeky fun, pathos, camaraderie, and fighting against the odds. By offering up a slice of disenfranchised America, and using a semi-children's adventure narrative, the palette was always going to be more discerning, but the results are ultimately hugely impressive.
Shout out to cinematographer Alexis Zabe whose use of pink and blue hues amongst the unrelenting traffic of the highway is a beautiful conflict throughout, as well as some fantastic images of a misspent youth, which make The Florida Project an engaging piece of cinematic diversity.
Vibrant, very funny, and a collective assault on the harsh conditions suffered by the most vulnerable in our society, The Florida Project is a strong candidate for the best indie film of the year.