We begin a run of films that were in the Guardian’s top 20 films of 2017; this one was at number three. The Florida Project tells the story of a precocious six year-old and her ragtag group of friends whose summer break is filled with childhood wonder, possibility and a sense of adventure while the adults around them struggle with hard times. Geoffrey Macnab describes it as ‘one of the best films about childhood made anywhere in recent years’. With its 15 certificate, it is also the utter antithesis to the typical Disney movie, even if it is set in a Florida motel very near to Walt Disney World.
The main protagonist here is a mischievous and imaginative six-year-old girl, Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, who’s living with her delinquent, tattoo-covered, single mother Halley in a very seedy motel run by the kindly but always exasperated Bobby (Willem Dafoe). It’s high summer and school is out. Moonee doesn’t have anything to do but she is far too inventive to give in to boredom. Who needs Disney World when you can spend the day spitting on the neighbours’ cars or taunting elderly women who like to bathe topless by the pool or conning tourists into buying you ice cream or burning down homes abandoned after the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Early on, the film is remarkably upbeat in spite of its characters’ straitened circumstances. Moonee is like a little modern-day Huck Finn, prowling round the purple walled motel with her friend Scooty and looking for adventure. Her mother Halley can barely scrape the rent together but has the same lust for life as her daughter.
The performances are remarkable. Brooklyn Prince plays Moonee as a warrior, tough and self-reliant but with a charm about her too that can’t fail to enrapture even the most hostile adults. The kids are at the heart of the film but newcomer Bria Vinaite is very impressive, too, as the volatile, foul-mouthed, self-destructive but courageous and strangely sympathetic young mother. Dafoe is wonderfully responsive as the caretaker of the motel, valiantly trying to sort out the problems of the residents, who give him little thanks for his efforts.
As in his previous feature Tangerine, which he shot on a tiny budget on an iPhone 5, director Baker emphasises the brightest colours. Characters may be living in squalor and poverty but all the buildings here seem to be pink or purple while the skies are cobalt blue. The sun shines most of the time.
The Florida Project unfolds as a series of self-contained episodes. Later on, it risks becoming repetitive. Halley keeps on making the same mistakes. The bleakness of the final scenes doesn’t take away at all from the utterly magical moments earlier in the movie, when Moonee and the other kids create their own self-enclosed world in which the problems of their parents don’t affect them at all.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall