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Review: The Florida Project – “A dark and funny modern fairytale”

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Bright purple and pink buildings stretch out to the sky. Crumbling breezeblocks painted to defiantly stand out, well aware that they cannot compete with the Disney theme park next door. And yet there is pride within these walls, celebrating what they are, good and bad. The times aren’t easy, but sometimes there are rainbows.

This is the prevailing message of The Florida Project, which manages to somehow be truly uplifting as well as horribly painful in its exploration of life in a poor housing development. It is an outstandingly beautiful piece of modern cinema, and is also frequently hilarious.

The Florida Project is the latest offering from Sean Baker, a director with a distinctive comic-book documentary style (the film that propelled him to prominence: Tangerine, was shot using only iPhones), taking the viewer on a journey through his young characters’ lives. It is an immersive, positive experience within a distinctive world.

The Florida Project is really Halley and Moonee’s story. Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) are lodging in a room at the Magic Castle Motel, very close to Walt Disney World. Moonee doesn’t go to school, instead she hangs with her best pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera), spending her days trying to stem the boredom as a normal if undisciplined kid, spitting on cars or trying to cadge a free ice cream. The film begins with Moonee making a new acquaintance – scarlet-headed Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her sister and grandmother in a neighbouring block – one of many subtle but telling references to social-economic poverty. The Magic Castle Motel isn’t supposed to be a housing estate, but kindly manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) can’t stop himself from helping the occupants, who each have reasons for making a small motel their home. In fact, the full-time occupants seem happier than the vacationers, but behind the laughter and warm weather lies a seedier edge to this world. Halley struggles to find work, so Moonee eats leftovers provided by Halley’s friend Ashley (Mela Murder) from the back door of a nearby diner. They are poor, listless from pouring over mobile phones and TV screens and have no foreseeable way to pay next week’s rent. With her neon green hair, multiple tattoos and penchant for short shorts, Halley is barely an adult herself, and the film follows how far she’ll go to provide a life for her daughter, all in the looming shadow of one of the world’s most ostentatious theme parks.

It is Baker’s skill with camera and in the edit that makes The Florida Project so compelling. He creates a film steeped in rich colour, portraying simple, identifiable joy that illustrates how this fringe element exists under the noses of holidaymakers and authorities alike. The Florida Project feels uncomfortably real, exploring many adult themes without judgement. In Baker’s hands, what could have been a high-handed melodrama is instead a strange mix of life-affirming joy – particularly when following Moonee and Jancey’s blossoming friendship – and disgust that Halley and Moonee cannot escape poverty’s clutches.

The Florida Project does not need to rely on Dafoe’s star power to bring in audiences, even though he is brilliant as Bobby. It is the new talent that astounds. Brooklynn Prince has the kind of screen presence that is almost disturbing in its precociousness. She is funny and smart, sassing any adult that gets in her way. Moonee is unaware that she has an unfortunate life and simply wrings happiness from everything she does, and Prince captures every one of Moonee’s changing emotions with purity. Vinaite is equally good, Halley being a young girl who must remain positive and keep fighting in the wake of the brutality of her existence. They make an awesome on-screen pairing.

It’s not often that a film like The Florida Project comes along, something that delivers a hard-hitting message mitigated by untainted optimism. It will undoubtedly form part of any worthy film school’s curriculum next year. This is a five star film, watch it and enjoy.

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