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The first thing to mention about Sean Baker’s modern classic The Florida Project is how beautifully understated it is. At no moment does this film feel like it is shoving its contents in your face, desperate to leave a lasting impression. Instead, the performances that capture your attention are at once so subtle, yet so powerful, that it is clear to see why the film was an early Oscar frontrunner.
Our story unfolds in the baking hot Floridian sun, as two children, Moonee and her best friend Scooty (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince and Christopher Riviera respectively) attempt to find ways of entertaining themselves during the long, drawn-out summer days. Living out of the same budget motels with names such as “Magic Kingdom” that line the Strip marking the route into Disneyland and left predominantly to their own devices by their single mothers, the kids entertain themselves by playing pranks on their neighbours.
Whilst there is certainly no “Magic Kingdom” on the horizon for Moonee, her mother strives to make ends meet with limited resources. Bria Vinaite, a previously undiscovered actress, gives a stellar turn as a single mother struggling to make ends meet, simultaneously “flipping off” the rest of society – both figuratively and literally. Her “devil may care” attitude hides vulnerability and concern about her ability to provide for her only daughter.
At the heart of this film though, lies a truly magnificent performance. Willem Dafoe, now aged sixty-two, gives possibly the finest performance of his career as the humble motel manager, Bobby. Attempting to run the motel and reign in the wild excursions of the children on his lot make Bobby the closest thing to a parental figure that these children have, and it is his understated, Everyman manner that makes Bobby such an endearing character. Despite the children’s constant behavioural misdemeanours, Bobby develops a fondness for them and looks out for them.
Shot in a style that closely resembles the work of one of his contemporaries, Richard Linklater, Sean Baker excels in the social realist mode. In many ways, the film begins in much the same way as it ends; picking up our characters in the middle of their day, with little sense of what has come before or indeed, what is to come. The cinematography of Alexis Zabe is clever, mixing the bright, colourful world of the motel and Orlando’s surrounding area with the darker tones that develop towards the film’s resolution. Despite the film’s serious tone and hard-hitting material, Baker does well to inject moments of comedy throughout, with one scene standing above the rest. Centred around a stand-off between Moonee and Bobby contesting Bobby’s “one drip and you’re out” rule, Moonee’s every lick is meticulously observed by the manager as she gleefully slurps at her ice-cream, taking momentary shelter from the sweltering heat in the motel’s reception.
Overall, The Florida Project is a thoughtful, immersive film that is full of heart, simultaneously bleak, yet hopeful. Sean Baker captures some of 2017’s most stand-out performances, revealing the untold lives of some of America’s poorest residents in a way that feels fresh, fair and not in the least bit patronising. A joy to behold, this a film that does not deserve to be missed.