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D: Sean Baker / 115m

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Mela Murder, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane

Every now and then, a movie comes along that shines a light on a way of life that is so far removed from our own lives, that it is like seeing a whole new world for the first time. Sean Baker’s follow up to Tangerine (2015) is such a movie. A powerful piece of cinema verite, The Florida Project explores the world of the hidden homeless, people who live in motels along the Florida highways, and who often find it difficult to make ends meet. This is a section of society that hardly anyone knows about, or if they do, even acknowledges. They are a social underclass, with few prospects and fewer ambitions. And what makes their situation so ironic is that they’re living in the shadow of the original Florida project, Disney World, a wonderland that provides the complete opposite of their own day-to-day struggles.

The focus of Baker’s movie is single mother Halley (Vinaite), and her six year old daughter, Moonee (Prince). They live in Room 323 at the Magic Castle, a motel situated close to Disney World, which is run by long-suffering manager Bobby (Dafoe). Halley doesn’t have a job and seems content to get by on state handouts and the generosity of her friend Ashley (Murder), who provides them with free food from the diner where she works. Moonee is friends with Ashley’s son, Scooty (Rivera), and together they roam the motel and the surrounding area getting into mischief and generally doing whatever they want. They get to know another girl around their age called Jancey (Cotto), who lives at another, nearby motel. While they play and get into minor trouble, Bobby does his best to help Halley out and keep her and Moonee from being evicted. But it’s not always so easy…

To reveal more about the various things that happen in The Florida Project would be to ruin the tremendous surprises that are in store for the viewer and which sit comfortably alongside the more predictable dramatic elements. This is a movie to watch without knowing too much about it. It’s a movie that instead, works better by letting it draw you in slowly and surely, and with all the confidence that it will all be worthwhile, and the viewer’s initial patience as Baker sets up the characters and the milieu they inhabit, will be rewarded over and over. And so it proves, as Baker and co-scripter Chris Bergoch paint a portrait of hard luck and bad luck combined and the ways in which seemingly constant levels of adversity and misfortune can serve to keep people – unfortunate people – stranded in one place, and with little hope of improving their situation.

It’s also a movie that’s largely seen through the eyes of its child characters (the camera is often positioned level with their line of sight), but without neglecting the very real involvement of the adults around them. Moonee is a “handful”, often disrespectful of adults, and unafraid of challenging them in a confrontational, “don’t care” manner that is both annoying (for the adult characters) and amusing (for the audience). She’s akin to a wild child, allowed to grow up with very little consistent parental input from Halley, and with the natural assurance of a little girl who does what she wants, and when she does get into trouble, is unable to take it seriously. Of the three children, she is the biggest instigator, and the biggest rebel. Even when she is rebuked by her mother, it’s only for show, to give the impression that Halley is a fit mother – though the evidence points in entirely the opposite direction.

It’s not until the three friends do something really serious that the dynamic and the narrative begins to shift, and the seemingly aimless and responsibility-free nature of their existence becomes undermined. But while Halley and Bobby deal with the “serious stuff”, Moonee and Jancey (in particular) forge a bond that sees them continue to view their world at a remove from the harsh realities of motel living. It all has to come to a head though, and Baker provides several clues as to where Halley and Moonee’s story is likely to end up, but along the way he’s careful to show that there can be positives to living in a motel and having the kind of semi-transient lifestyle that goes with it. There are lovely moments such as Bobby’s early morning encounter with a trio of cranes, or Moonee and Jancey’s chatter about finding gold at the end of a rainbow (while one arches over the motel). Prince and Catto both give wonderfully natural performances – a lot of their dialogue sounds improvised even if it wasn’t – while Vinaite portrays Halley as fiercely aggressive when challenged on any level (watch what she does when Bobby orders her out of the motel reception area). And then there’s Dafoe, giving one of his best ever performances as a man who, in his own way, is just as stuck as Halley, but who goes about his work with a tremendous sense of pride.

What makes The Florida Project so effective overall though, isn’t just the performances, but the setting, a real motel that allowed Baker and his cast and crew to shoot while the motel was open, and which gave Baker the chance to include some of the residents in small bit parts during the filming. This all adds to the sense of verisimilitude that Baker has created, and there are plenty of scenes that have a documentary feel to them, as if Baker has managed to capture real slice-of-life footage. The movie weaves its social commentary in and out of the narrative, making poignant observations about the locations where it was shot and the people that inhabit those locations through necessity, and while it’s largely a sympathetic portrait, Baker isn’t remiss in showing the harsh realities that are part and parcel of such an existence. But through it all there’s an immense amount of hope on display, a reflection of the determination that keeps the likes of Halley and Bobby going from day to day, despite the obstacles that Life keeps putting in their way. What Baker has done so well, is to show the humanity of the characters in such a way that we can all empathise with them, and at the same time, be thankful we (hopefully) have very different lives from them.

Rating: 9/10 – a bona fide modern classic, The Florida Project is bold, assured movie making from a director whose control and intuitive approach to the material makes for one of the most impressive features so far released in 2017; with superb cinematography from Alexis Zabe that helps infuse the motel and its surroundings with a degree of magical realism when required, this is a movie that lingers long in the memory, and which works – with ease – on an remarkable number of levels.

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