As award season started to creep into focus – a time for biopics and slightly stuffy intellectual dramas – with The Florida Project, we received one of the most life-affirming films of the last few years. Here is a movie which fizzes with youthful effervescence; it’s as mischievous as bubblegum, sometimes dark as liquorice and always sharp like sherbet without ever stepping into the saccharine.
The film tells the story of the Magic Castle motel – a sprawling pastel establishment in the shadow of Orlando’s Disney parks – and the residents within, scraping together a living by any means necessary to make rent each month. Much of the world on view is seen through the eyes of 6 year-old Moonee, a precocious girl too young to fully grasp the hardships of her family’s situation but ready to thrive with her defiant mother regardless.
Played by Brooklynn Prince, who gives an astonishing performance akin to the eighth wonder of the world, Moonee swears, spits and burps with reckless abandon, a foul-mouthed princess surveying her motel carpark kingdom, enlisting new pint-sized followers each time she goes out to play. As the camera follows her adventures with best friend Scooty and new kid on the block Jancey, viewers are transported back to the naivete of youth, seemingly free from worry as, for much of the film, the pinch is only truly felt by her mother.
Cast in her first feature by Baker after sliding into her Instagram DMs, Bria Vinaite’s debut as Moonee’s mother Halley is one of fuck-the-world intensity which burns with the fire of a single mother who’s slipped through the cracks. She’s the product of a system that isn’t made for her; with no references to allow her to rent privately, her only way to survive is to pay hand-over-fist at the Magic Kingdom, a fragile temporary arrangement all too prevalent in 2017.
The pair’s relationship illuminates the picture, the laughter they share is infectious and the love is as real as anything seen in theatres this year. Although some of Halley’s actions throughout border on deplorable, her need to protect Moonee is unwavering – as with life, here the lines of morality can blur. One of the standout moments born from their chemistry is a wonderful scene in which Moonee, giggling, brazenly orders everything off a diner menu with intoxicating glee, without of course realising that the only way they can afford this is to skip out on the bill. It’s a set-piece that perfectly encapsulates the fragility of their being, yet is never shy of frivolity.
Playing reluctant enforcer is the property’s manager Bobby, played with a masterful delicacy by Willem Dafoe: a man who veers between babysitter and bailiff, himself struggling to make his venture a success, often unable to keep up with renovations. The Hollywood veteran gives his best performance in some time as a man both exasperated and empathetic – as much as Bobby will hassle for the rent each week, equally he’ll staunchly defend those under his roof. This is best shown during a scene – inspired by a situation the team had encountered while filming – in which Bobby methodically coerces a would-be predator away from the children to find out his true intentions. Awards acclaim will surely follow.
Shot on location in working motels, whose patrons and staff can often be seen in frame, The Florida Project is a film that exists as a living, breathing tribute to the will of the Sunshine State’s hidden homeless. Condescension or fetishization is non-existent as the crew eschew any hint of tourism, instead thoroughly immersing themselves in the lives of their subjects.
On paper the film’s subject matter could be somewhat morose, and in other hands overwrought, but here the results are joyously captivating. Though director Sean Baker’s work remains rooted in uncompromising reality, flourishes of the surreal pepper his work and this magical streak continues here. Once again he gives the spotlight to characters often overlooked in the world of film. His last, 2015’s Tangerine, often improvised and shot exclusively on three iPhone 5s, told the story of a transgender sex worker on the lookout for revenge when her pimp/lover has been rumoured to be unfaithful; it proved to be one of its year’s most electrifying breakouts. Potentially one of the most vital filmmakers on the planet, Baker is leading the charge to give more visibility to the most underrepresented without a preach in earshot.
There are no ways to sugarcoat the fact that belief in the art (read: business) of American filmmaking took a hit following widespread reports of abuse in the industry, but here in Sean Baker’s soon-to-be cult indie, we’re provided with enough reason to trust in the wondrous good that movies do. The Florida Project does more than just shine a light on the discrepancies of the Floridian classes, it’s here to save your soul.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2017.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 4…
20th – LADY MACBETH
19th – JACKIE
18th – LOGAN
17th – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
16th – PADDINGTON 2
15th – A GHOST STORY
14th – THE BIG SICK
13th – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
12th – BLADE RUNNER 2049
11th – THOR: RAGNAROK
10th – THE DEATH OF STALIN
9th – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
8th – TONI ERDMANN
7th – THE HANDMAIDEN
6th – LA LA LAND
5th – DUNKIRK
4th – THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2017 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2017!