The Florida Project review poverty and joy in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom

Sean Baker, director of the iPhone movie Tangerine, steps up to a whole new level with this life-affirming tale of a six year old living in a Florida motel

Ken Loach and Tex Avery never had a chance to collaborate on a cinema together, but the manic, high-energy and ultimately heartbreaking social drama The Florida Project more than suffices.

Following his much lauded iPhone-shot Tangerine, director Sean Baker( working once again with co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch ), has lost none of his fire and exuberance working with a larger budget and some well-known casting members. Indeed, Willem Dafoe, as the reluctant father-figure director at the Orlando motel where this movie is situate, dedicates one of the best movie performances of his entire career. Baker, who has a number of microbudget features under his belt, has propelled himself into a whole new league now.

But you might already have your guard up. Father-figures, motels, social drama … what, are there some life lessons, too? I can assure that being in some preachy, feel-good, roadside cliche indie is the latest thing any of these characters would want. They’d cackle and run away at any clue of it.

Front and centre is Moonee( Brooklynn Prince ), a six year-old girl exploding with optimism, humor and in constant thrall to chaos. She and her chums- Scooty upstairs and Jancey who just moved into the motel next door- are too young to recognise or care that they are living beneath the poverty line. They are street ruffians: except their street is the side of a highway, surrounded by enormous keepsake stores, diners and abandoned housing developments. Nearby, somewhere, is the Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyworld, and occasionally tourists drop by their motel when they screw up their online reservations.

Moonee’s young, heavily tattooed mother Halley( Bria Vinaite) has recently lost her job. The implication is that she was a stripper who didn’t want to do extra favours for the customer. How she’ll come up with the weekly rent( at $35 a night) is the question she’ll eventually face, but Moonee doesn’t know too much about it. She’s too busy cavorting around the laundry rooms and Bobby the manager’s office.

There is a lot of joyful noise in this movie. Moonee is a mimic of what she sees and hears( and much of the hell is garbage television) but her unchecked rudeness comes with no malice. There’s little point in trying to discipline her; she is a force of nature. Also she’s just so damn cute.

The first one-third of The Florida Project flames forward at high-speed, in a stylised blur, with some of the best child acting this side of Truffaut’s Pocket Money. In very small increments things slow down and take a more documentary-style approach. A blizzard is coming( as it often does in Florida ), and all of it is depressingly predictable. Just what exactly is a woman like Halley supposed to do to make money when there are no chores?

While minimal on plot, the film excavations in its nails on the day-to-day struggles of poor people in America. Even those with jobs are a little skittish, like the cab driver eyeing every minute not making a fare, or the command and level-headed Bobby, who changes his demeanour when the motel proprietor is on premises. That this all takes place in the Magic Kingdom’s shadow is a metaphor upon which lesser film-makers would lean more heavily.

But look out for Bria Vinaite, who Baker discovered on social media, and especially young Brooklynn Prince. This movie could never work without a musicians of their calibre. Things seem grim for Halley and Moonee, but we can expect a lot from the people who brought their marvellous narrative to light.

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