The Florida Project

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Florida Project
"The script doesn't patronise its characters, showing they're just as capable of the best of actions and the worst as anybody else, but makes sure we understand the additional pressures they face."

The acid brights of LA nightlife captured by Sean Baker in Tangerine are replaced by a palette of candy colours for his latest film The Florida Project, with the action largely set in a motel on the fringes of Orlando, just one of many Dolly Mixture-hued buildings that slot right in with the Disney landscape at first glance. But, as with his LA story, he's not interested in the people you usually see but the others you don't or don't care to, for whom these fringes are the centre of the universe - and whose stories are often overlooked or told in ways that accentuate the bad stuff and leave none of the good.

The Magic Castle motel is far from being the idyllic holiday destination the name may suggest - although hapless tourists sometimes end up there by accident. Instead, it acts as a sort of last-chance saloon for its residents, who are often forced to scrape up the weekly rent by hook(ing) or by crook(ing). Not that little Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) knows much about that. To the six-year-old, this is her own magic kingdom, where she can lead her fellow rugrats on adventures and a little light vandalism in between panhandling sweetly for the joy of a shared ice-cream.

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She gets her spirit from her mum. Halley (Bria Vinaite) could be a Disney Princess from the wrong side of the tracks with her straggly blue-dyed hair, top-to-toe skin ink and fierce attitude - an attribute that has led her to lose her strip joint job because she refused to offer 'additional services'.

We career with Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Dicky (Aiden Malik) and Jancey (Valieria Cotto) as they race through the first part of the story. And racing is the name of the game. Like children in a Kore-eda film, the only way to get anywhere is at the hurry up - running, skipping but never walking - each place offering a fresh discovery. Baker, working with screenwriter Chris Bergoch, also captures the free-spiritedness of kids' interactions, whether it's the way they take it in turns to eat an ice-cream in increasingly bizarre ways or their random conversation - "If I had a pet alligator, I would name her Anne".

We're invited to watch them with the same sort of benevolence employed by Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, sinking into his role as though it was his favourite sofa), who also ladles out tough love to the older members of the community like Halley, his looks of concern mirroring our own as we see, long before she does, how things are likely to go.

The script doesn't patronise its characters, showing they're just as capable of the best of actions and the worst as anybody else, but making sure we understand the additional pressures they face. The film also emphasises how young Halley is herself - her joy at shopping for trashy jewellery or wolfing down waffles and syrup rivalling that of her daughter, showing how this 'bad' mum still has big love for her daughter.

Baker can't resist slipping in the odd heavy metaphor - Moonee's comments regarding a tree being able to grow on despite falling over seem unusually 'adult' and message-driven, compared to what goes before and after - but the Disney dusting is used well and the sight of reality coming crashing down on Moonee, heartbreaking. But Baker isn't interested in wallowing in her sorrow, it's her resilience he, and we, are drawn to, and she is soon off and running again, even if it is towards an uncertain future.

Reviewed on: 01 Oct 2017
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The story of a precocious six-year-old and her rag-tag group of close friends whose carefree lives contrast with those of their struggling parents.


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