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Stars: Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian and Sandy Kane.
Writers: Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
Director: Sean Baker

Rating: 4/5

The resilience of childhood innocence works hard to beat down real world hardship in The Florida Project, a slice-of-hard-life drama that pulsates with a rawness and compassion all too rare in modern cinema. Set almost entirely within a gaudy Florida hotel peopled with the disenfranchised and forgotten, director Sean Baker’s neo-realistic eye for humour, honesty and heartbreak has crafted a slow burn, potent commentary on America’s struggling underclass. 

In the shadow of Disney World (the original ‘Florida Project’), the strip mall and 2-star motel burg of Kissimmee clings desperately to a more prosperous past, when families of tourists filled the rooms and frequented the ice-cream parlours and fast-food chains in greater numbers. The Magic Castle Motel has become home to six year-old Moonee (the extraordinary Brooklynn Prince), a tough talking, indomitable spirit whose passion for life and take-no-shit survival instincts sees her rule over her own self-styled magic kingdom amongst the noisy sprawl’s highway sidewalks, back alleys and abandoned buildings.

Moonee’s ballsy bravado keeps her above the din of desperation, a trait she has adopted from her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Foul-mouthed and heavily inked, Halley has no idea how to mother except in the purest of forms; she adores her daughter but hates the world, clashing with all in authority and finally turning to soliciting to pay rent on their dishevelled motel room. The compassion of sturdy hotel owner Bobby (Willem Dafoe, Oscar-bound) is tested many times over, his resolve to maintain his establishment’s crumbling façade only matched by his tough-love care for Moonee and dwindling patience for Halley’s outbursts and excuses.

Working once again with co-scripter Chris Bergoch, Sean Baker has captured this vibrant yet precarious part of US society in most of his features to date. From Four Letter Words (2000) to Take Out (2004) to Prince of Broadway (2008), Baker has examined fringe dwellers clinging to hope in the face of mounting hardship; both Starlet (2012) and his last film, the acclaimed Tangerine (2015), featured protagonists determined to shoehorn their personalities and perspectives on life into a society that has pre-determined their course.

Like many of those works, The Florida Project soars in its first act with a freestyle joie de vivre that suggests Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) exist happily in defiance of their lot in life. Baker’s colourful and energetic opening stanza, however, proves every bit that ‘crumbling façade’ that Bobby tries to paint over; or, in grander terms, symbolises the happy face but corporate coldness of the all-pervasive Disney empire and the country in which such entities prosper, above its people. The director has a flair for rich character, tart dialogue and splashy production design that feels buoyant, but Baker’s America is ultimately a sad, hopeless landscape. His films are filled with damaged but wondrously joyous humans for whom the society formed upon 'The American Dream' has no time or place.


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