The Florida Project
Who’d have thought a film following a group of poor, raucous, primary school-aged kids around the purple-hued daymare that is on-the-edge-of-Disney, Orlando FL, would turn out to be one of the best films of the year? THE FLORIDA PROJECT leaps from the screen in a riot of colour and laughter like some kind of shimmering rainbow lining, wrapping the deep, dark cloud at its core.
Filmmakers Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch trade in honesty. Not the grim ‘kitchen sink’, hackle-raising vérité of Ken Loach, or the heightened, discomforting realism of the Dardenne brothers, but characters and situations that ring completely, utterly true. The contexts may not always be familiar but the people in them are as recognisable as people we interact with every day. To view Baker and Bergoch’s films is to enter lives and worlds without any sense of voyeurism or pretence. In THE FLORIDA PROJECT, the forgotten fringes of Orlando’s Disney-fied tourist suburbs spring to life against a backdrop of garish tones and sweat inducing humidity.
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives a week-to-week existence with her unemployed mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the pastel purple environs of ‘The Magic Castle’ (an actual Orlando hotel) on the outskirts of Florida’s Disney World. As Halley hustles for rent money, 6yr old Moonee, on summer break, is left to roam the sun-drenched neighbourhood with her hotel-pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). They have the best of childhood adventures as the grim realities of poverty circle indistinctly about them, occasionally broaching the bubble of their vivid imaginings. Hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, giving a career high performance) keeps an eye out for kids and parents alike; playing his part in this poverty cycle in as humane a way as he can.
For a drama that cuts deep, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is primarily a joyous viewing experience. Our entranceway and point-of-view into this world is care of Moonee: a wild, carefree girl whose primary concerns are ‘what to do today’ and ‘what’s for dinner’. She and her friends are so full of life that it makes our adult understanding of their context all the more affecting as less savoury details unfold. And yet, it is hard to stay sad in a film where the main characters are having so much damn fun!
I confess to connecting strongly with the kids in this film. My experience of youth—significantly further back in time, and in small town New Zealand to boot!—(surprisingly) included many similar experiences. From road-meltingly hot summers, to the freedom to roam the local neighbourhood at will (in a way that my kids, in a bigger city and in this day and age, have never had), to an ever-present unspoken sense of fiscal insecurity, to engaging in non-malicious acts of petty vandalism. Moonee and her friends are, to use a favourite descriptor of my mother’s, right ‘little shits’: regularly causing mayhem and low-grade trouble for the adults in their wake. It’s not that they don’t know that they’re near destitute so much as this is the only life they’ve known and they’re damn well going to enjoy it as best they can—even as their caregivers struggle to do the same with a more forbidding mental-emotional calculus at play.
I’ve been a fan of Baker and Bergoch’s work since catching their excellent 2012 feature STARLET when it played NZIFF 2013 (with the director present for a post screening Q+A!) I subsequently named their (famously iPhone 5 shot) 2015 feature TANGERINE my “new favourite Christmas film”. So it is no big surprise that I came away loving THE FLORIDA PROJECT too. Though exploring a different specific context—moving from the dry heat and spoiled glamour of off-piste L.A. in the former films to the moisture-rich heat of a faded mid-Florida tourist trap—THE FLORIDA PROJECT continues their ongoing interrogation of life on the margins.
Baker and Bergoch draw their stories from within the communities in which they shoot, often including real local locations and people, lending an authenticity to their productions that is as compelling as it is difficult to replicate. And though they dig into issues of class, cycles of poverty, injustice etc., it never feels like the filmmakers are getting on a cine-soapbox and shouting at us. They simply present a warts-n-all reality with warmth and humanity. This is most obviously seen in the character of Bobby, who goes out of his way (as much as possible while still running somebody else’s business and holding his own ends down) to do right by his tenants, to give them support when it is coming from no other quarter. We see a similar kind of grace and care from other characters too. They all know life is hard, that one does not always make good decisions, and that some are less equipped to do so than others. The filmmakers don’t tell us how to feel about the understandable, if no less reprehensible, choices made by the hard-pressed adults in charge of the lives of Moonee and her friends. This is quite a skill: to present difficult stories free from any sense of judgement. Baker, Bergoch, and their cast and crew achieve this, turning out a bittersweet drama that is at once painfully sad and infused with pure joie de vivre, culminating in one of the most exhilarating endings I’ve seen on screen.
And it looks astounding. Beautifully shot on 35mm by first-time collaborator Alexis Zabe (whose work on Carlos Reygadas’s 2007 feature SILENT LIGHT is a masterclass in cinematography), the film makes stunning use of its distinct locations and the colour palette they supply. Basically, if anyone needed further proof that Sean Baker (and writing partner Chris Bergoch) are major talents (in a minor key), THE FLORIDA PROJECT is it. I can’t wait to see it again.
Rating: R13 Violence, offensive language, drug use & sexual material.