When you’re a kid, almost anywhere can be the happiest place on earth. That’s the case for Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), the 6 year-old with weaponised precociousness at the centre of The Florida Project, enjoying a bright, aimless Orlando summer at the Magic Castle, a packed low-rent motel where she lives with her young, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).
Perched on the fringes of Disneyland’s high-commerce funtopia— the helicopter blades of VIPs buzz overheard— the lurid purple paint of the Magic Castle could easily be mistaken for one of the resort’s attractions (Indeed, one Brazilian couple make the wrong booking for their honeymoon; when the taxi pulls up the bride’s face drops). But The Magic Kingdom doors are shut to Castle residents — a collection of the working poor and unemployed, who hand over weekly rent to the tough but respectful manager Bobby (an ace turn from Willem Dafoe). Mickey’s trademark rings dot the expansive Americana skies, always just a little distance away. But none of that matters to Moonee, who is having the time of her life.
Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch’s Tangerine caused a stir with its underdog ethos, using a modified iPhone to capture the beautiful authenticity of life walking the streets for two transsexual prostitutes. The origin story was great indie PR, but the film was a riot regardless, thanks to fiery newcomer performers and a sensitive, funny eye for hustlers on the margins and the rituals of friendship and camaraderie that sustain them. The Florida Project, co-written by the two men, with Baker directing and editing again, has a similar appreciation for the spirited and the left behind. Halley is, on first glances, a bit of a nightmare; tatted, loud and obnoxious when things don’t go her way, which, it seems, they haven’t been for a while. But this aggression is itself a kind of strategy for protecting herself and Moonie, even as their caperish good times come with a summer-romance ticking clock.
The Florida Project is a horror show for health and safety minded parents. Moonie and her friends Scooty and Jancey fill their long, empty days wandering up and down the strip, exploring abandoned land, bothering motel staff and making up games. They display a boredom and a fascination that only kids of a certain age have, and they talk like them too. Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe capture one of the squad’s treks up the street in a series of eye-popping static shots, kiosks mushrooming in the frame, framing the kids as storybook adventurers on a jaunty quest.
So immersive is the motel location, and the daily frustrations and indignities faced by Dafoe’s Bobby (the only authority figure with some heart), that any departure is a bit of a shock. Halley, perhaps sensing the finite nature of her care, takes Moonie to the breakfast buffet of a nearby tourist hotel, with clean carpets and vats of food for the taking. The waitress, just out of shot, asks for their room number, and there is a faintly alienating sterility to her tone, not just because Halley’s hustler experience has us primed for judgement and exclusion. There is something off, something other, about all external intrusions — gullible tourists, well-meaning clipboarders from child services, security guards stopping the girls from hawking cheap perfume in hotel car parks.
Tangerine exploded like a Christmas cracker; The Florida Project refreshes like a Calypso in July. It has a languid, lay-around looseness that could have done with a little clipping and it’s not often a nice film per se, but it is a joyful one, bursting with life, colour and a kids-eye curiousity for the magic of ordinary things. Conor Smyth
The Florida Project is currently showing at Dundonald Omniplex and the Irish Film Institute and will be released in Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 17th November.