In 2015, American filmmaker Sean Baker made waves during the film festival season with his fifth feature film Tangerine, as it was notably filmed using iPhones. The film received critical acclaim, with a number of critics praising his camerawork and filmmaking skills. However, Baker adopts 35mm cameras in his follow-up feature set in the extended-stay motel community in Florida.
Set over the summer break, The Florida Project follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Kimberley Prince), who lives with her irresponsible mother Hailey (Bria Vinaite) in a motel in Kissimmee, Florida.
What is striking about The Florida Project is its grittiness. The motels are shabby, its loud and brash occupants are struggling financially, and the kids are running wild. Baker and Chris Bergoch’s humorously trashy dialogue lifts the story past the pessimism of the characters’ poverty-stricken surroundings while Alexis Zabe’s smart and creative cinematography captures the ironically vibrant motels and the outlandish local stores.
The essence of The Florida Project is a grown-up story captured through the eyes of a child, namely the precocious Moonee. Prince exudes a child-like innocence that comes across as genuine and endearing, delivering a standout performance.
While Moonee is seen as rebellious, she is just a child. But with no guidance from Hailey, she is a loose cannon with a smart mouth. She is also blissfully unaware of her mother’s financial troubles and the after-effects of her own tearaway nature. This not only self-isolates them from friends and the community but also restrict their ability to survive financially, causing Hailey to go down a dark path.
When Moonee eventually gets her reality check, Prince’s sweetness comes through in an emotionally charged exchange between her and her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). With both actresses are no younger than six at the time of filming, their on-screen friendship is poignant and sweet, casting an innocence over the seediness of the motel. Fellow newcomer Vinaite delivers a ballsy performance as Hailey whereas Willem Defoe is great as the gruff but well-meaning manager – a relatively low-key role for the film’s most high-profile actor.
The Florida Project is just like Moonee and her mother – loud, confident and brutally honest. An explosion of vivid colours, creative camerawork and amazing performances, it is one of the most engaging films this year.
Director: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch (co-scr).
Stars: Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe
Runtime: 115 minutes