Sean Baker dares to work with children, and draws from its protagonists some very fine performancesA24

The stars of some films are colours. Bergman’s Cries and Whispers starred red, Rhomer’s Claire’s Knee green, The Grand Budapest Hotel pink. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project stars the colour purple. Purple so dominates that it would not be unreasonable to regard it as the film’s protagonist – imbued as it is with all the light and shade of a great performance.

“It hangs over the summer like a dark cloud, from which the eventual rain washes Moonee’s world of colour”

The walls of The Magic Castle, a rundown motel on the outskirts of Walt Disney World, and the home of the film’s human protagonists, have recently been painted different shades of purple by the motel’s long-suffering manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). It is out of this purple sky and purple ground that feral children Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and their friends craft their world for the summer.

Left to her own devices by troubled mother Hallee (Bria Vinaite), Moonee turns The Magic Castle Motel and the surrounding commercial wasteland into her own ‘Magic Castle’, full of possibilities which she exploits as much as she can. Hallee deludes herself that her lifestyle of drugs, prostitution and theft will never catch up with her, but it hangs over the summer like a dark cloud, from which the eventual rain washes Moonee’s world of colour.

Bria Vinaite is nothing short of spectacular as Moonee's distressingly troubled motherA24

The Florida Project is Sean Baker’s sixth feature, though one would be forgiven for thinking it only to be his second, due to the way he burst onto the arthouse scene in 2015 with Tangerine. The Florida Project is certainly a few hundred miles closer to cinematic convention than Tangerine, a comedy-drama about transsexual prostitutes shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, but it is nonetheless riveting to watch for that.

“The children seem humorously and hubristically to be almost creating their own storm out of sheer malaise”

Working with an almost entirely non-professional cast (the notable exception being, of course, Dafoe), Baker manages to expertly weave together the worlds of arch auteur/aesthete and gritty realist. The resulting cinematic experience feels akin to watching Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) if she had employed Wes Anderson as art director.

What is exceptional about Baker’s film is that, though loaded with symbolism, it never lets the harsh realities of the life it depicts slip into the background, like the bedbugs hidden behind the headboards. The most heart-wrenching moments are those in which Moonee and her friends are shown turning their artificial universe into tangible reality.

In the first episode of the film, the children are seen sitting on a balcony having a spitting contest. In their candy-coloured world of superficialities and escapism, the children seem humorously and hubristically to be almost creating their own storm out of sheer malaise. The children’s intuitive empathy with nature pervades these potent scenes.

Trailer for the Florida ProjectYOUTUBE

Later in the film, Moonee confides to new friend Jancee that the dramatic tree in the Floridian swampland they are sitting on is “her favourite tree”, because “it’s falling over but it’s still growing”. Baker does not wallow in the tragic symbolism of the moment, but rather prefaces it with the girls voraciously devouring a humble picnic of jam and bread donated to the poor residents by a Christian charity. Indeed, Baker (who edited the film in addition to directing, co-writing and co-producing), does not pan out to show us the entire tree until after their entire conversation, and even then only does so for a moment.


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Despite the fact that childhood experience is undoubtedly at the core of the film, The Florida Project would be unthinkable without Viniate’s courageously bombastic performance, as it would be without Dafoe’s usual calm and understated gruffness. Largely left without soundtrack apart from the diegetic sounds of the rap music Hallee and her friends blast from their phones, the one piece of conventional soundtrack is a wild reimagining of ‘Celebration’ by Kool & The Gang which is certainly worth listening out for. The film also features an exciting subversion of form which ought to be kept from those who have not yet seen it.

The Florida Project manages to squeeze the sense of the passage of time of a traditional bildungsroman into a single school holiday. Even if ultimately, in its slight tricksiness, the film lacks the emotional gut-punch of Arnold’s American Honey, it is nonetheless rare to encounter a film that so smartly merges humour, grit, and colour

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