2017 was an exceptional year for cinema, we saw the likes of Get Out, Dunkirk, The Phantom Thread, Blade Runner: 2049, The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name among many others. And, while I adore each and every last film mentioned there was one film which really affected me on such a personal level that two years later I can still recall each and every shot featured in the film. Sean Baker’s wonderful The Florida Project was a film that felt cruelly snubbed by the Academy Awards, and while the overall winners of the Oscar’s felt rightly deserved, the fact that Willem Dafoe wasn’t awarded best supporting actor still stings. The film’s main actor Brooklynn Prince wasn’t even nominated despite giving one of this decade’s best performances by a child actor. In fact, each actor is perfectly cast for the film, and considering that many weren’t even professional actors is another aspect that is outstanding.
The Florida Project is described as an American slice of life, and it’s a slice of life that tragically so many of us are probably unaware of and which the media chooses to ignore. What makes the film so impactful is the fact that it is based in truth, the reality is that there are countless young children like Prince’s Moonee who are in a similar situation simply trying to exist from day to day and living in constant fear that tomorrow they may not have a roof above their heads. In an interview with The Guardian, Sean Baker discuss the film’s production and the research he conducted, stating that “We spent a long time with child-protection agencies and motel managers. It’s a fictional film, but what it’s based on happens all the time.”
We follow Moonee, a six-year-old girl who lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a lilac coloured motel called Magic Castle which is located close to the Disney resort in Florida. Moonee runs amok with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Jancey (Valeria Cotto), passing the time by getting into all sorts of trouble whether that be spitting on the other motel residents’ cars, or scamming tourists out of their money for ice cream. Often Moonee and her little gang run into the motel’s manager Bobby (Dafoe) and end up causing him a lot of grief. Halley struggles to make money and spends her days selling perfume to tourists with the help of Moonee, but it’s not enough and soon Halley finds herself in an uncomfortable situation.
From the synopsis of the film, you may expect The Florida Project to be a very straight face, serious drama but it’s quite the opposite. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe manages to capture the beauty of the sunshine state, capturing this bright and colourful world that surrounds the Magic Castle. The film’s strengths really do lie with it’s three central performances, with Prince being so authentic and genuine that you almost forget that she’s acting, she is Moonee. In an interview with Complex, Baker described Prince as being ‘born to do this’ and it’s hard not to agree with him. Honestly, I don’t think The Florida Project could work without Prince.
Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker’s script has a Dickensian vibe to it, laced with comedy and elements of tragedy but it never feels exploitative. Charles Dickens was famous for setting his stories in the world of the working class and those struggling to survive in poverty. Baker seems to share that humanity that Dickens had, as his previous film Tangerine (2015) followed the day in the life of two transgender sex workers in the seedy underbelly of L.A. and Baker’s co-directed film Take Out (2004) followed an illegal Chinese immigrant struggling to find the money to pay a large debt. With The Florida Project, Baker continues to bring the viewer into these worlds that rarely get the chance to be seen on the big screen.
In a lot of ways, The Florida Project reminded me of Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) with both films capturing the world from the point of view of a child. Both Beasts Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Moonee exist in a poverty-stricken underclass ignored by the rest of society, but their enthusiasm for life and adventure makes them rich in lots of other ways. The two girls seem to appreciate life more, and they come across as wise beyond their years but never losing that sense of wonder and awe that many children have. There is much that we can learn from these two characters and both films would make a perfect double bill.
The Florida Project is one of those rare films that only seem to come along once in a while, it’s a film that feels of its moment but also timeless, much like The Kid (1921), The Bicycle Thief (1948) Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) and Moonlight (2016). Like these films, I suspect The Florida Project will continue to be loved and treasured by cinephiles for years to come. If you haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch it already, then now would be the perfect time to do so. A word of warning, make sure you have tissues on standby as the ending will break you.