Sometimes, it is easy to forget about the children. Unadulterated adolescent lawlessness has of course long since found cinematic representation in the form of documentary-style features wishing to convey a bleak dose of reality from the oft-ignored underbelly of American youth. Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) and Bully (2001), Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (2003), and more recently Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016), offer stark, sometimes controversial depictions of the easy to enter, difficult to escape free-for-all that is rogue teenage life.
When it comes to characterising those at the bottom of the American dream ladder, writer-director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is cut from the same cloth (low-budget, documentary-style execution, and a largely unknown cast). What makes it a breath of fresh air harbouring hidden-in-plain-sight contamination thick enough to choke upon, however, is its frank examination of children living in poverty, and how their innocent eyes see and interpret their way of life.
Too fledgling to fully contemplate her place in society or even think about legitimate rebellion; six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), like many other curious youngsters who frequent the Kissimmee extended-stay motels located in the shadow of Disney World Florida, is a haywire satellite locked in a vicious spherical orbit around the hand-to-mouth plight of Halley (Bria Vinaite), her lovingly desperate single mother. Responsible for their colourful borderline slum is the community’s first and last line of defence; the sympathetic, yet ultimately by-the-book motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch take care to remind us that the narrative does not have a lead character as such; rather a lead relationship in the form of Halley and Moonee’s connection as mother and daughter in the context of a nation that presents itself as the world’s greatest. The miserable events forever manifesting around Halley – who has no regular job to supplement her weekly rent – are as predictable as they are tragic, yet even as her parenting style grows increasingly irresponsible, it is difficult not to feel sorry for her. Moonee, meanwhile, lives life to the full, but her misplaced understanding, and acceptance of what “full” is (expressed by Baker with moments of beautiful, crushing sensitivity), coupled with her unconditional love for her mother, completes the heartbreaking experience.
Vinaite puts in a great turn, supported by the always reliable Dafoe – who brings a tired, downtrodden tolerance to Bobby’s reluctant overseer of gloom – but the star, of course, is Prince. Alongside fellow child actors and onscreen chums Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera, she embodies Moonee’s pure youthful exuberance in the face of adversity with such convincing drive, that there is no reason why her name should not pop up on nominee lists come awards season.
Baker too deserves credit for guiding Prince’s performance, as well as for the technical prowess of the production. While the natural juxtaposition of the primary colour-clad poverty surrounding Disney World writes itself into proceedings, Baker makes a point of constantly emphasising the ridiculousness of the entire situation by utilizing slow, wide-angle tracking shots and achieving a sense of bizarre, out of place richness from each raw 35mm frame.
Thought-provoking and depressing, with a jarring and unexpected, yet on reflection welcome ending, The Florida Project is essential viewing and easily one of the films of the year so far.
The Florida Project is now on release in select cinemas across the UK. Let us know what you think of it.