By Catherine Pearson
From a cast of largely non-professional actors comes a hopeful and sympathetic look at the poverty that lies beyond the walls of Florida’s Disney World.
Single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) live together in a motel in Florida. It is a bright purple building named ‘The Magic Castle’ and while it may be sat in the shadow of Disney’s the Magic Kingdom, the community that live there could not be further from the families that visit the state’s biggest attraction.
Charity organisations come by to bring the residents basic supplies. Run-ins with the police are a source of entertainment for the residents, who excitedly film the blue flashing lights from their balconies when officers pay one of the rooms a visit. For Halley and Moonee, their main source of income is selling wholesale perfume to patrons leaving some of the more affluent hotels in town. It would be a bleak picture were it not so bright, vibrant and teeming with hope.
The Florida Project is shot from the perspective of young Moonee, a sassy six-year-old with attitude by the bucket load. While her mother is barely scraping together enough money to get the pair of them by (and smoking away a fair bit of what they get), Moonee is whiling away the long, hot summer days with her friends from the project and the neighbouring estate Future Land. As the camera paces the streets from Moonee’s level, we see her gang of pals hang around the looming and garish novelty tourist shops that populate the area where they make their own fun and find joy in the little things. While Halley is living to get to tomorrow, Moonee is enjoying the here and now. In many ways, it’s a love song to the innocence and freedom of childhood.
Protecting that innocence and freedom, albeit endearingly reluctantly at times, is the manager of the motel complex Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe). Quite literally the King of the Castle, when he’s not giving the building a new lick of purple paint, fixing broken appliances or encouraging the local prostitute to cover her boobs at the poolside, Bobby acts as Moonee’s unlikely surrogate father. In a stunning performance from Dafoe, Bobby acts as both the diligent proprietor of the property and the protector of the young children who view it as their playground. His paternal fondness is beautifully underplayed but warmth and genuine compassion radiates from him. No wonder he’s already being tipped for an Oscar.
While this film has been viewed by many as a runaway hit, plenty of other people have picked up their coat and walked out of screenings. It’s hard to miss the sea of five star reviews that cover the film’s poster on the underground, but it’s important to also know that this is a film with very little in the way of plot. It is a slow, meandering look at someone’s life and while the film does build to a dramatic and very moving climax, the majority of the film is spent as a voyeur of the lives of the people who live at The Magic Castle. If you like action or a dramatic twist, this may not be the film for you.
That being said, if you like a film where every frame looks like a perfectly captured Instagram shot, look no further. The Florida Project is stunningly shot, with every frame bursting with colour. While the lives of the people in the project are tough, this is bizarrely offset by the Disney aesthetic that is present in every building and every road sign surrounding their half-way home. The characters often wear block colours which, up against the dazzling midday sun or the beautiful orange sunset, is a vision to behold. There is no doubting that this surreal carnival of colour contributes hugely to the sense of hope that runs throughout this film.
The sense of hope also comes from the glorious relationship between mother and daughter. Although it is upsetting to see a young mum swearing like a sailor and smoking in the bed she shares with her child, director Sean Baker is careful not to linger on any judgement and instead dwells on the little, beautiful moments that the pair of them share. Laughing and giggling like a pair of best friends, Halley and Moonee enjoy the fireworks display that can be seen from beyond Disney World’s walls and frolic in the rain, chasing each other in hysterics. Both acting newcomers, the two of them shine in every scene they share while Bria Vinaite brings a complicated concoction of classlessness and warmth to her character. It’s not a character that you can immediately warm to, but the film begs you to understand that people cannot help but be a product of their environment.
Many of the most heart-warming scenes between Halley and Moonee involves food. Halley’s face lights up when she can treat her daughter to some scrummy, sugary junk food and one of the film’s most uplifting and quietly tragic scenes takes place at a hotel buffet where Halley sneaks past the front desk so her daughter can gorge herself on any food her heart desires. It’s one of the funniest scenes, too, with a fixed camera on Moonee’s face as she regales her mum about her food choices with such enthusiasm. All the acting training in the world couldn’t recreate such energy and honesty, and Brooklynn Prince is a pure joy to watch.
As Moonee and friends continue to pass the days, creating their own fun as they run carefree around the neighbourhood, the pressure mounts on her mother to gather together enough money for them to continue to board at the $38-a-night motel. Desperate times lead to desperate measure and what results is a desperately moving closing sequence in which young Brooklynn Prince steals the show. It’s a poignant and painful ending that poses so many questions about the nature of parenting, justice and compassion. As the credits go by in silence, Moonee’s spirited words from an early scene may well ring in your head. “Give us a break, lady!”
The Florida Project is out now.