The ending of Sean Baker's new film, 'The Florida Project,' took my breath away. In the final sequence, shot clandestinely on an iPhone, the film's young heroine Moonee makes a dash for freedom with her new best friend Jancey. There is a change of tone and pace that is so unexpected and exhilarating that it left members of the audience like myself gasping and placed all that we had seen up until then in a new perspective. Then the film just ends.
'The Florida Project' is about six-year-old Moonee and her single mum Halley who live in a single room in the Magic Castle, a budget motel just outside Disney World in Orlando – in sight of the turrets of the Magic Kingdom but worlds apart in all other respects. The film builds on this divide, presenting a series of brief vignettes that delve into America's invisible homeless population and fastest growing demographic: families living hand to mouth in motels originally intended for tourist overspill from the glitzier holiday theme parks across the highway. Those who cannot secure housing because of their previous record may be paying over $1,000 a month to rent a single room that they must vacate once a month to avoid establishing residency. More than 2,000 'motel kids' inhabit the small area in which Baker's film is set.
Sean Baker has a track record of focusing on overlooked corners of America. In 'Tangerine' (2015) it was the world of two transgender prostitutes. Adopting an observational style where truthfulness lies in the detail, Baker's new film is special because of the child's-eye-view that it so carefully constructs. There is not a single scene in which we look down on the children: whenever they are in shot, the camera is at their eye level or following them at shoulder level. Recession America is the backdrop to every frame. Yet 'The Florida Project' is visually stunning, its purple-painted motel location offering a compositional gift to Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zake who makes the most of its crazy architecture and singing colours.
The film's out-and-out star is uncannily gifted newcomer Brooklynn Prince. As six-year-old ringleader Moonee, Prince is an astonishing purveyor of smart, foul-mouthed precocity and irrepressible joy, to such an extent that when we see her wracked with misery at a key moment we are totally undone. The other central character, Moonee's pinky-green-haired volatile 22-year-old mother Halley, is first-time film actor Bria Vinaite, an Instagam entrepreneur, spotted by Baker when seeking character-development ideas online.
The sole seasoned actor is Willem Dafoe, terrific as the world-weary, sweet-natured motel manager Bobby, keeping a fatherly eye on the children whilst dealing with everything from bed bugs to frog-marching possible child-molesters off the premises. In one hilarious episode he coaxes away a trio of haughty herons who have strayed in. Dafoe's performance has earned him a 2018 BAFTA nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Baker has real empathy for female friendship, shown here in the sparkling summer adventures shared by Moonee and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). For a while the gang includes Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) until they are separated for different reasons. Moonee is a terrible influence on her friends, as conveyed early on when she leads them in a spitting contest from a balcony onto parked cars below. The spontaneity and exuberance of early childhood, the irrelevance of any gender divide and the kids' irrepressible capacity for fun make for an engaging slice-of-life mosaic.
Some have criticised the film for having no story, just a series of vignettes. Yet a slow-building narrative does drive the film, that of a mother-daughter relationship that cannot go on as it is. We watch with growing dread, knowing that this story cannot end well. A misadventure instigated by Moonee leads Scooty's mother Ashley (Mela Murder) to forbid her son from seeing Moonee again. Ashley, a rare stabilising influence in Moonee's life, has been stealing food for them from the diner where she works. When Halley tries to build bridges she is rebuffed and beats up Ashley in front of her son Scooty.
As the film enters its final act at summer's end, Moonee's world comes crashing down. She is about to be taken away by child welfare staff – her distracted mother's desperation to raise the rent has progressed from touting wholesale perfume to rich tourists to turning tricks in their single room. During one of Halley's encounters with a client, Moonee is shown taking a long bath in their only other room. It is a shockingly sad scene, and Moonee's realisation of the repercussions of her mother's shortcomings packs a huge emotional punch.
Baker's restraint prevents him from exploiting the situation, focusing on Moonee's face only as long as is absolutely necessary to show her fear at the threat of separation from her imperfect, loved mother. Moonee runs to Jancey's house where she lives with her grandma. Utterly devastated, she is barely able to speak. Jancey grabs her hand for a quick getaway. It is now that the film's lush 35mm photography is suddenly replaced by the sharp hyperactive digital look of an iPhone 6s, and for the first time in the film a musical score kicks in.
For one breathless minute the kids' world takes on the magic promised by Disney's Magic Kingdom, as they make a dash towards its Cinderella Castle. It's the entire film in microcosm – and then it's over. The girls run and run all the way to Disney World, passing through all the spaces we have already seen but now see in a new way. Up until now we have been simultaneously observing the kids playing and seeing their world through their eyes.
With this sudden stylistic switch Baker places the audience entirely inside the head of a child as if saying, 'if you want a happy ending this is the only way you're going to get it.' After all, throughout the film we have been watching Moonee use her imagination. She can't go to Disney's Animal Kingdom, so she takes her friends to the 'safari' behind the motel and they look at cows. They can't go to the Haunted Mansion, so they go to abandoned condos and play in white wafts of insulation ('ghost poop') – a scene reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay's wonderful 'Ratcatcher' (1999) when the young protagonist enters an unoccupied house in a new Glasgow housing scheme and is enveloped in floating white net curtains.
Truffaut's 'The 400 Blows' (1959) also ends with an impossible dash for freedom by its rebellious young hero Antoine. Truffaut depicted children's amazing ability to stand up to life and survive. That same spirit infuses Baker's clear-eyed drama. Full of compassion for its characters' fragile lives and filmed in ways that lend them dignity, 'The Florida Project' finds heart-stopping beauty in the image of a tree. Moonee loves it because 'it's tipped over and it's still growing.' Baker never feels like a voyeur. As Mark Kermode says, 'This is Moonee's world and for a couple of hours, we are privileged to live in it.'
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