The Florida Project: A provocative portrait of American poverty
The Florida Project (R13)
This was a movie I didn’t intend to see.
On a scorching September Saturday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festival, I thought I was seated to watch Kate Winslet vs the elements in The Mountain Between Us.
Naturally, I was rather confused when confronted with the opening image of three unruly kids trash talking and spitting on a car parked outside a sun-bleached, desolate-looking low-rent motel.
Initially, I wasn’t too taken by the misadventures of miscreants Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), but by the end I was captivated by one of the most audacious and confronting slices of 2017 cinema.
That this provocative portrait of American poverty should come from writer-director Sean Baker is perhaps no surprise. His last film, 2015’s Tangerine, was a gripping dramedy ,shot on an iPhone and set on the seedier streets of Tinseltown. The Florida Project takes place in the shadow of Florida’s Disneyworld (the film’s title actually borrowed from the theme park’s original codename).
While the tourists live it up in nearby four and five-star hotels, the likes of Moonee and Scooty’s solo mums Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Ashley (Mela Murder) struggle to make ends meet in the pastel-coloured The Magic Castle Inn and Suites.
Run by the increasingly exasperated Bobby (a quite brilliant Willem Dafoe), the welfare motel is home to myriad undesirable behaviours. Many of these are carried out by Moonee and her mint-haired Mom. From scamming stolen perfume and theme park tickets, to “hosting” clients in her room, Halley sees nothing wrong in how she lives her life, even as the unsupervised Moonee gets up to riskier antics by the day.
Despite this time shooting on 35mm film (bar a breathtaking and uplifting covertly shot final scene), Florida boasts the same handheld verite style and naturalistic approach as the much-lauded Tangerine. In fact, if it weren’t for the presence of the familiar craggy features of Dafoe (Antichrist, Spider-Man) you’d just about swear it was a documentary with the likes of Louis Theroux just out of frame.
That feeling is greatly assisted by the superb performances of newcomers Vinaite and Prince, whose characters might polarise audiences, but certainly leave a lasting impression.
A film not for the faint-hearted, easily-offended or frequently irritated by “kids these days”, Florida is nonetheless a vibrant and vital slice of modern American cinema.
It feels not only like the natural successor to the controversial films of Larry Clark (Kids) and Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), but, perhaps bizarrely, also an interesting companion piece and contrast to Ken Loach’s award-winning I, Daniel Blake. Both feature a female protagonist forced to go to extreme lengths to keep her family afloat and their alternative approaches say everything about the differences between British and American society.