The Florida Project: Beauty and Poverty intertwine in Sean Baker’s latest triumphant drama

3rd November 2017

Director Sean Baker graces us with yet another superb pulsating drama, The Florida Project. The film follows the same vein as his previous films; insatiable to watch but highly emotive; the trans action dramedy Tangerine and its quirky predecessor Starlet. The Florida Project features likeable yet damaged characters whose situations slowly reveal troubling life circumstances which depict the failing socioeconomics of American society. Its all presented under a veneer of edgy, brightly coloured aesthetics, littered with humours moments with an overarching plot that is tinged with bittersweetness.

Moonie (Brooklyn Prince) and her friends, spend their summer days causing mischief around their lilac painted ‘Magic Castle’ motel where they live in a rather shabby looking area, just outside Orlando’s Disneyworld. As the film focuses in on Moonee; we become acquainted with her juvenile unemployed mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) and their hand-to-mouth existence. Halley resorts to questionable ways to pay the weekly rent; from selling cheap perfume to Disney tourists to the occasional bout of soliciting; all under the watchful eye of tender-hearted proprietor Bobby (Willem Dafoe). We also see Baker regular, Karren Karagulian in a cameo role as the motel’s owner.

Prince is exceptional as Moonee, giving us an incredibly natural enactment; portraying her as an audacious, loud, care-free child; where the whole world is her playground. Her performance is further enhanced by the realistic play and banter between her friends Scooty (Christopher Riviera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto); their bounciness and exuberance is so joyous, its infectious. A glimpse of Prince's impressive acting chops is seen in the final scene as she flees the hands of the social services, showing up at her friend’s Jancey door only then to break down in wailing tears. An incredibly breath-taking and gut-retching moment where Prince conveys Moonee’s distress and desperation so accurately; it is truly an extraordinary delivery for someone so young.

Bria Vinaite, a first-time actress, is laudable as the congenial young mum Halley. Vinaite injects a flirty, breeziness to her role; her fashion-conscious tattoos, Adidas slides and green dye hair betray someone who is still a youth herself. She appears clueless at being a mother; there is an abundance of love for Moonee, but her maternal care is very ad hoc; the concept is not fully grasped perhaps indicative of her own lack of parental guidance. Dafoe is equally brilliant as the compassionate Bobby; down trodden by the things the job has exposed him to over the years. He loosely takes on the role of concerned paternal figure but understands any action is futile in such hopeless situations.

Baker takes full advantage of the spaces and architecture he occupies, making them emblematic of the character’s current situation. The motel is given a rainbow bright shine, complete with a back drop of puffy white clouds, observed mostly through children’s wide eyes, but over the course it slowly unveils itself to the reality of poverty-stricken dwellings of America’s hidden homeless; a mid-stop between a home and the streets. Other effervescent scenes include the squalor neighbouring areas outside Disneyworld’s gates; rows of franchise stores in cartoonish silhouettes of giant oranges, cheese burgers and ice cream cones; where our kids frequent, begging strangers for change to buy frozen yoghurt. Other more troubling scenes occur more close to home, in the motel's room bathroom; Moonee is innocently fantasy playing with her barbie dolls in an empty bath, passing time while her mum is in the other room entertaining male clients.
Baker ropes in talented Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe; whose ramped up the colour contrast to the max. Building structures, wastelands and nature is given a luminous, almost fluorescent sheen. Each scene looks like a perfectly curated Instagram photo, using a X-Pro II filter. This use of colour intensity reminds of magnificent Italian horror film Suspiria but also the cultish pop feel of outputs by director Gregg Araki, such as Kaboom and The Doom Generation.

Baker’s filmic observations are already creating an impressive body of work, developing a signature sensitive touch, where individuals relegated to the side-lines are brought centre stage and celebrated; warts and all. He places these colourful characters in stories which on the surface shows a squalid beauty and a spiky cool vibrancy but are ultimately underlined by an all too real and all too sad life situation.
The Florida Project is set for release on 10th November 2017.

Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_

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