Since it debuted in Directors Fortnight in Cannes, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has been talked of as an awards favourite, even mentioned as this year’s Moonlight, indeed.
I’m not sure it can go quite that far, but it’s certainly entertaining. Until it isn’t. Like his previous film Tangerine, famously shot on iPhones and set among LA’s trans sex workers, Baker’s follow-up has a keen sense of place, the action unfolding in the shadow of Disney World in Orlando, in a motel called the Magic Kingdom, populated by long-term guests who can’t find housing.
One such unit includes Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her kid Moonee (cute stuff from the oh-so-now named Brooklynn Prince). Mother tries hard to give her 6-year-old daughter fun but she’s really got to come up with the rent, somehow, while Moonee and her little friends – Scooby from upstairs and newly-arrived Jancy – play in the car parks, malls and parklands and generally have a giggle in the laundry rooms or running amok in the motel manager Bobby’s office. Bobby’s played by Willem Dafoe, very tenderly.
There’s a hint of social realism here (a bit of Ken Loach, or more particularly, Andrea Arnold, whose American Honey also revelled in motel life), but it’s all so vivacious and colourful, and the kids are so carefree, you forget the darkness creeping up on the edges.
But creep in it does. Initially as a sexy scam, but later, more troublingly, more violently, more gut-wrenchingly.
This is about poverty-line America, life on the margins, but it’s also about resilience, sex, social media, survival and, most of all, about money. Not for nothing is its central image that of a kid in a shopping cart – it looks defiant and bright enough, but there will be trouble ahead. I liked the film very much, although for me it does meander a while before lurching into stormier waters and I wish Halley ended up more resourceful than she’s allowed to be – in a way, the performance is brighter than the character, but then maybe that’s where the heartbreak truly lies, in the way all our dreams and potential are kept just out of reach, imprisoned in a security-patrolled, economically ring-fenced fantasy land – we can’t all be Tinkerbell, after all.