The Florida Project 


Three years ago Mark Cousins made an excellent documentary called The Story of Children and Film which looked at how childhood was presented in cinema. It’s a shame he couldn’t have waited though as this new film has to be one of the purest depictions of early youth ever to have been captured on screen. The kids at the heart of the movie live in very particular circumstances but, just as Lenny Abrahamson did with Room, in showing children surviving in a very specific situation director Sean Baker has created something universal. The Florida Project is a brilliant portrayal of the very essence of infancy and it is captivating, exhilarating and heart breaking.


Six year old Moonee and her twenty something mum live in poverty in a budget motel within walking distance of The Magic Kingdom. The film takes place over one summer as Moonee and her similarly aged friends amuse themselves, taunting the other residents, begging for money to buy ice cream and exploring their enchanting but sometimes dangerous environment in enchanting but sometimes dangerous ways. Without the finances to enjoy much of what other children have there is a timelessness to their adventures. Baker has talked about this as an updating of the Little Rascals pictures of the 50s and you can see this comparison in how everything plays out. Make no mistake that these are troubled, naughty kids but it is great spending time in their company. 


These rascals are not heading down to the arcade then or engaging in organised activities and there is little chance of them meeting Mickey Mouse even if he is their neighbour. Their proximity to Disney World acts as a metaphor as these youngsters are living on the edge of convential childhood and this symbolism takes on additional meaning in the film’s beautiful denouement.


Although this is essentially Moonee’s story, her mother Halley features heavily throughout the loose narrative as well. It is easy to be judgmental of Halley’s parenting style which is most certainly criminally lax but she is committed to her daughter and their relationship is touching even as you can see it spiralling out of control. Moonee is neglected but she is not unloved and she is unquestioning of the way she is being raised. It is her existence and she is living it with an infectious gusto and no limits. Watching her play is like watching a child walk on a high beam, you are moved and inspired by her determination and achievement but constantly terrified that she is going to fall off and get run over, snatched or eaten by alligators.


On the edge but very much involved in all of this is Willem Dafoe’s motel manager Bobby, forced to take on some parental style responsibility over those that live under his supervision. Bobby is one of those quiet heroes that never get celebrated and is inspiring in his own way. The performances throughout are just wonderful but watching this quite quickly after Murder on the Orient Express I realised how much better Dafoe is than the series of extended cameos he has done recently in films like that, Death Note, The Great Wall, John Wick and The Fault in Our Stars. I haven’t seen all of his smaller films but this has to be his best work in three decades, possible ever, and I hope he is recognised at awards time. 


The star of the film is undoubtedly seven year old Brooklyn Prince as Moonee though. All of the children are superb in this and full credit has to go to Baker for getting those performances out of them but Prince is just astoundingly real. There is one moment at the end that matches Tom Hanks’ final scene in Captain Phillips and this girl is an eighth of his age. She will undoubtedly now be swept up by the Hollywood machine (having been on the outskirts of Disney she is next working for them on The One and Only Ivan) but I hope she can keep the honest rawness that she demonstrates here.


The Ripley Factor:

Moonee is an infant firebrand in the same way as Lale in last year’s Mustang but she doesn’t have quite the same feminist motivations. The Florida Project centres very much around the female experience; motherhood and growing up as a girl but while this is not peripheral neither is it key to the more broadly human story that the film is telling.

Is this one for the kids?

It is for the kids in the sense that it honours them but not in the sense that it will entertain them. The movie is rated 15 and has lots of swearing and adult themes. It may not be a film for all grown ups either. It’s vérité style won’t appeal to everyone. Personally though I loved it, and I might have cried just a little bit.


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