An endearing story about childhood and friendship on the margins of society, The Florida Project is a raw portrayal of the challenges faced by a community struggling to stay above the poverty line and out of trouble. With striking performances by Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, and Willem Dafoe, the film sheds an empathetic light on poverty and social exclusion in America, exploring characters that are intriguing, memorable and beautifully flawed. Oh, and it’s technically near-perfect!

Set in Orlando, Florida, the film follows 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends, as they spend a summer running around, exploring the area around their makeshift community – a cheap motel complex just off a busy highway. Home to America’s “hidden homeless”, the appropriately named ‘Magic Castle Inn’ is an unsuitable environment for children, riddled with questionable residents, seedy establishments, grim souvenir shops and cheap neon signs. Ironically, this poor, marginalised community is located in the shadow of the immaculate “Happiest-Place-on-Earth” Disney World – one of the biggest and most prosperous corporate enterprises on the planet.

movieThe circumstances of living in such an impoverished neighbourhood are dire, but through the eyes of a child, the same rough setting opens up a wonderful world, full of opportunities to learn, explore and cause all sorts of trouble. We watch mischievous Moonee and her playmates as they spend their summer blissfully unaware of their adverse surroundings. They laugh, play and act recklessly – stalking neighbors, hustling tourists, breaking things and generally mimicking the behaviours of their undeniably poor role models – already displaying the consequences of problematic parenting. Moonee’s life is highly entertaining but also deeply thought-provoking. Her antics appeal to the child in us, evoking a sense of endearing nostalgia. However, the adult in us can’t help but fear that those carefree years will soon be cut short, as those kids will eventually have to face the harsh reality of living below the poverty line in modern-day America.

This is an indie movie, so if you expect a complex screenplay with plot twists, cliff-hangers, and a Hollywood resolution, you’re in for a disappointment (or a pleasant surprise). It’s slow-moving, with a documentary feel to it – think Moonlight or Boyhood. The ending is quite open and ambiguous, and possibly a case of ‘love it or hate it’,  so overall, the plot may feel a bit unfulfilling. Rather than a compelling storyline, the filmmakers offer a non-judgemental slice-of-life narrative, where no section of society is demonised, and any bold social/political statements are merely implied. And that is achieved superbly, with some stunning visuals and realistic performances.

Brooklynn Prince is exceptional as Moonee. Genuinely funny and terribly cute, her performance is captivating, and her energy infectious. She is definitely up there with the most talented child performers on the big screen at the moment. Bria Vinaite’s performance as Moonee’s brash and rebellious single mother is also noteworthy – especially considering her lack of acting experience (she was discovered by the filmmakers on Instagram!). Willem Dafoe is the best-known actor in the film. He plays the motel’s manager: a harsh-but-fair, hard-working man who often acts as a compassionate father figure and protector for the community’s vulnerable residents. Perhaps in a mainstream movie, he would have been the villain – a mean landlord that makes residents’ lives even more desperate and adds that bit of expected dramatic conflict to the story; but in true indie fashion, his character is much more human and multi-layered than that. His performance is very strong, albeit slightly outshined by Moonee’s intense, hyperactive character.

Stylistically, The Florida Project is quite different from the director’s last film Tangerine, which was shot entirely on iPhone 5s. Shot on more conventional 35mm, its excellent colour grading produces a pleasing warm image, drenched in bright colors and soft grainy contrasts. Visuals serve a crucial narrative function, with unconventional framing, deep soft focus, elaborate wide shots and extreme close-ups emphasizing emotions and revealing flaws, as camera angles perfectly alternate between adult and child perspective. The temperamental, extreme Florida weather is also cleverly deployed to accentuate tension and compliment highly emotional moments. Sean Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe use an observational documentary-style approach to filming that creates an authentic atmosphere, in a perfect example of contemporary neorealist art.

The Florida Project takes an honest, thought-provoking look at poverty, unemployment, consumerism and broken American dreams, through a portrayal of childhood innocence that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Definitely, one to look out for this Award season, while the independent film community eagerly awaits for Baker’s next project.

From writer/director Sean Baker and starring Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Bria Vinaite. THE FLORIDA PROJECT – Now Playing. RELEASE DATE: October 6, 2017 DIRECTOR: Sean Baker CAST: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto and Bria Vinaite Visit The Florida Project WEBSITE: Like The Florida Project on FACEBOOK: Follow The Florida Project on TWITTER: Follow The Florida Project on INSTAGRAM:

Maria Kokkou
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