The Florida Project explores childhood innocence in the face of raw, searing reality. Set on the outskirts of Disney World, this film is no enchanted fairy tale.
The film follows a set of characters as their lives unfold, the camera often staying a few paces behind them as they wend their way through the grimy neighbourhood.
The sickly lavender motel and overload of loud crummy ads on the strip is contrasted against the scenes of untouched, peaceful nature. Just as the fanciful lives of the children are juxtaposed with genuine poverty.
Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friends are left to their own devices, and from their hyperactive, playful perspectives each day is an adventure. Alex Zabe’s masterful cinematography allows us to enter their point of view and see this sad corner of life as a magical landscape. The lurid colours and glowing sunlight tinge the setting with fantasy.
Writer and Director Sean Baker(Tangerine) presents a sequence of patient moments which build and connect over time. This pace creates the illusion that the characters and events are evolving organically, and takes time over the vivid, human performances from Prince, Bria Vinaite and Willem Defoe.
Many of these moments seem to exist outside of reality, like when the camera stays close to Jancey and Moonee as they make sticky jelly sandwiches. We pause with them, watching as they spoon the jelly onto the bread, getting it in their hair and all over their cheeks as they awkwardly cram it into their mouths. Moonee asks, in almost a whisper – “do you know why this is my favourite tree? Because it tipped over, but it kept on growing.”
The camera then pulls out, showing that they are sitting on the trunk of a huge fallen tree. Tangled roots sticking out at one end, and new green foliage reaching for the sky at the other. The girls are surrounded in its wispy, breezy branches. It is a prefect little moment of security and contentedness.
These moments that celebrate childhood innocence are punctuated by flashes of violence and tragedy which erupt from the reality of these character’s degraded, impoverished lifestyle.
The children manage to retain their innocence, and each time they witness a disaster, their inability to comprehend it allows them to return to a fantasy world.
The three main children, Moonee, Jancey and Scooty are brought to life beautifully. Prince in particular delivers an outstanding, sincere performance. She captures Moonee perfectly, blending hilarious bursts of mischievous energy with heart-rending expressions of confusion and fear.
Defoe plays a kind-hearted but subdued motel manager who, although often at the end of his tether, has a sense of humour and feels responsible over Moonee and her troubled mother. It is a stunning performance.
Defoe’s moving performance gives the sense that the camera is dipping into his life, and that his life, as well as everyone else’s, goes on after the film finishes. This realism is not gritty, but profound. Baker does not pass judgement on the characters or their predicaments, he never dwells on the negative side of this world. Instead he lovingly returns to the children’s innocent perception of reality.
Moonee’s mother, Halley, appears wilfully naïve, facing the reality of raising a child in a motel with a fierce ‘whatevs’ attitude. Vinaite’s faultless performance brings the complexity of this character to the surface. Trapped in poverty and unable to provide a conventional upbringing for Moonee, Halley’s defiant behaviour is her way of protecting Moonee’s innocence.
As the fantasy begins to crumble around them, the cinematography changes. The film moves from drawn out, elegiac moments to a quick succession of shots. The tension builds, hurtling us towards the final, euphoric sequence.
The Florida Project celebrates the protective power of naivety, allowing you to feel and see like a child. The organic script, the incredible performances, and the genius cinematography pull you into the story. Watching this film makes you cry, laugh, and stirs up the childish, ecstatic, electrifying urge to run.
By Emily Black
The Florida Project is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 14th – 23rd of November. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.