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Film Review: The Florida Project @ London Film Festival 2017

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In Andrea Arnold’s 2016 film American Honey, Arnold demonstrated her skill at finding characters who might elsewhere have been treated unsympathetically and filling an audience with compassion for them. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, named after the working title for what would eventually become The Walt Disney World Resort, pulls off much the same trick.

However, where Arnold is quick to remind us of the destitute, desperate worlds her characters live in, Baker has chosen a world far different. In this world, the kids of the Magic Castle motel are kings and queens, and unlike Arnold’s bleak environments, happiness here seems almost within reach.

This is quite literal, in fact: those living in the Magic Castle are a stone’s throw away from Disney Resort. But a stone’s throw makes all the difference for the broke misfits populating the motel. First, there is Moonee (6-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), a young girl whose gutsiness could charm the hell out of even the most cynical of people. She’s already familiar with the hallmarks of adult behaviour, hence her hilarious (and improvised) reply to the weary hotel manager’s word of sarcastic thanks: “You’re not welcome!”.

Yet, her full identity remains compellingly unformed, setting her apart from a litany of coming-of-age heroes that have preceded her. The girl’s spunkiness is distinct, but she is still a white canvas not yet spoiled by the things life will eventually throw at her, making her a universal symbol of childhood for an entire audience.

Taking care of Moonee is her mother, Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite, discovered by Baker through Instagram), a tirading, but fiercely compassionate young woman who will do anything to support her plucky daughter. This is both a blessing and a curse for Moonee, who remains painfully unaware of the extent her mother cares for her. Vinaite is a sharp, bitter contrast to Kimberly Prince’s sweet, fluffy Moonee. But we are given one more lens with which we see the action unfold: motel manager, Bobby, played with ardent affection by Willem Dafoe.

Dafoe’s Bobby might otherwise have served as some kind of bourgeois villain, had a director without Baker’s love of human kindness been handling the film. But Bobby is more than just a motel manager: he is a weary father figure to the miscreants that populate the Magic Castle, as imperfect as they come, and possibly the most humane character put to celluloid this entire year.

Dafoe makes the toothy-grinned menace of his earlier characters evaporate, instead giving his thin, dusty tones a low-energy shock of humanity and naturalism in a career-peak role. Such was the depth of his performance that he was able to move me to tears with a passing, “I love you, too” at one of the motel inhabitants.

The world that Baker then houses these characters in is beautifully, perfectly realised. It’s balanced at an apex point between the magical, paradisal way that the kids view the pastel-coloured kingdom, and the seedy, derelict dump that we might see were we to drive past it.

Part of the credit for that has to go to Alexis Zabe’s ravishing cinematography which, even in the more guerrilla moments, has the texture of a cement wall and the charming blurriness of a polaroid. Through Zabe and Baker’s marriage of Tarkovskian long takes and the soft humanism of Linklater, they make the film an absolute blindside.

Though the script is thoroughly unpretentious, and based largely in vignettes, Baker still hits higher heights of unspoken beauty than any wordy monologue could. It spellbinds with dilapidated charm whilst asking some very real questions about the kinds of people who live in the motel rooms and spare beds of the world.

These are people for whom a house on fire in the distance isn’t cause for alarm, but an invitation to simply set up a deck chair and watch the thing burn.

Alas, ultimately, Baker isn’t a voyeur, he’s a filmmaker. Though I laughed and cried as any magical cinematic experience is wont to make me do, it was often through subtlety that Baker achieved those emotions. He allows us to see that the bigger picture of poverty is there, but he treats a small story like a small story. The film belongs to that core trifecta of Moonee, Halley and Bobby. They have all already come to terms with the way they must live. With The Florida Project, Baker has been generous enough to let us see it.

The Florida Project screened as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival this October. Further details can be found here.

 

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