Director Sean Baker is best known for 2015’s Tangerine, famously shot entirely on an iPhone. His follow-up, The Florida Project is shot instead on 35mm film, delivering a big-screen experience. However, in common with his breakthrough film, Baker again focuses on people on the fringes of society in modern-day America.
Halley (Bria Vinaite) lives in a budget motel in Orlando, on the fringes of Disney World. She survives on welfare and any money she can make scamming rich locals and tourists. Her six year old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is left to run wild in the motel’s grounds and the neighbouring properties for most of the day with her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera). The movie documents one summer of their lives juxtaposing the kids playing with Halley’s struggles to provide for her child. Vinaite is a fearsome presence, and her depiction of Halley feels all too real. Her performance also highlights the problem I had with the film.
Halley has admittedly not been dealt a fair hand in life but she is an almost entirely unlikable person, a terrible mother and prone to bouts of violence. It feels an unfair criticism in some ways as the character is scarily authentic but Baker could take a leaf out of Ken Loach’s book. The veteran British director always manages to show the dignity of his protagonists, however awful their lives are. Unsurprisingly, Moonee is a complete brat and that lessens the impact of the final few scenes of the film.
Instead, the beating heart of the film is provided by Bobby, the diligent but compassionate hotel manager. It may be Willem Dafoe’s best ever performance. The kids are fine, and it may seem churlish to criticise someone so young, I found that Prince – who has gained a lot of praise – less naturalistic than the others. The biggest surprise in the acting stakes was that the normally terrible Caleb Landry Jones is okay in a couple of scenes as Bobby’s son.
The movie is lovely to look at throughout with a nice guerrilla filmed ending – again using an iPhone – shot in Disney World. Ultimately, I feel a bit conflicted about this film but the sheer quality of the film making and some of the performances overcome most of my reservations about the characters.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10