MOVIE REVIEW: Five-star film’s incredible achievement

Who knew kids running around like little nutters would be so endearing?
Who knew kids running around like little nutters would be so endearing?

DIRECTOR Sean Baker has made a career out of telling the stories of outsiders, of the overlooked.

His breakout film, Tangerine, followed the dramas of Los Angeles sex workers and was shot entirely on an iPhone. Before that, Take Out focused on illegal Chinese immigrants while Prince Of Broadway was about New York street hustlers.

With his latest film, The Florida Project, Baker's humanist approach sees him aiming his camera at the underclass a stone's throw from the happiest place on Earth, the transient motel residents of The Magic Castle.

Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a cheap, gimmicky motel down the road from Disney World, Florida. The Magic Castle is part of the unsanctioned, unlicensed grey economy trading off tourists' Mickey fever.

Defiant and rude, Halley can't hold down a job and makes ends meet by hawking cheap perfume to tourists in carparks and relying on handouts from food vans.

Though she clearly loves her daughter, she doesn't take much interest in supervising Moonee or her mates. Halley is barely more than a kid herself.

Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite are untrained actors who give wonderful performances
Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite are untrained actors who give wonderful performances

Moonee and her friends Jancey and Scooty run rampant all over town, causing all kinds of havoc, behaving as if the entire world only existed to fulfil their needs, the way that young children do. They hustle tourists, spit on cars and set things on fire.

It leaves the motel's manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to act as parent to both Moonee and Halley. He's warm but practical and it's easy to see why Dafoe's considered performance is the frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor.

While The Florida Project has a story arc, that's not the point. There's a looseness to it with scenes often serving no purpose in terms of narrative momentum - they exist to allow the audience to spend more time with these characters, gaining insights into their marginalised place in modern America.

It speaks volumes about Baker's affinity for these characters and this world that The Florida Project can take you from the first 10 minutes when you're squirming, regretting seeing a movie that seems to primarily feature screaming, undisciplined children to a place of deepest empathy.

That is an incredible achievement to pull off.

Empathy and humanity are the prevailing qualities on display
Empathy and humanity are the prevailing qualities on display

The world captured by Baker's lens is colourful and bright, despite its impoverished inhabitants, and he never judges or pities them for their choices, even if you might. Here is a movie that shows, not tells.

Baker normally works with undiscovered talent - Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones are the rare exceptions - and little Brooklynn Prince is a revelation. She's vibrant, effervescent and a total firecracker. Vinaite, an untrained Instagram star, is similarly wonderful as Halley.

For all of its naturalism, The Florida Project is also a celebration of childhood wonderment, even if that childhood is penniless and only adjacent to, not part of, the fairytale being sold by corporate America.

With The Florida Project, Baker takes a big swing and hit it right out of the park.

Rating: 5/5

The Florida Project is in cinemas on Thursday.

Share your movies and TV obsessions with @wenleima on Twitter.

Topics:  movie review movies the florida project willem dafoe

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