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.
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