The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017), an indie feature film set on the fringes of Disney World in Florida, documents the life of the working poor and unemployed – single mums, carers, the self-medicating and misfits –who get by, pay check-to-pay check, living in a constellation of down at heel hotels on the scrappy outskirts of the town.
Six-year-old Moonee (the incredible Brooklynn Prince) and her mum Haley (Bria Vinate) rent a hotel room crammed with their possessions, a blanket over the window and large a TV screen at the foot of the bed. The hotel is managed by the industrious Bobby (the wonderful Willem Dafoe) doing his best to enforce rules, undertake repairs and extract payments from his errant tenants.
While the film occasionally shifts perspective to Bobby or Haley Florida Project centres on vibrant and inventive Moonee as she roams the pastel hued hotel grounds, the adjacent swamplands and nearby highways in search of adventure with her gang of friends. These unsupervised excursions frame the small children against absurdly oversized shop fronts: gross theatrical backdrops, vernacular icons of mid twentieth century pop and consumer culture and exploits them to great effect. Occasionally they cross paths with civilians: horrified tourists landing at the hotel on the back of badly made online accommodation bookings, pedophiles looking to take advantage of the unsupervised children, hospitality workers.
I’ve not seen Baker’s other films so I can’t compare its tone its predecessors. He is a director influenced by vérité film traditions and improvisation; whether you like the film will depend on how you lean.
Moonee happily accompanies her mum as they schlep a bag of perfumes around to the more salubrious hotels, dodging staff, and cajoling tourists into making a purchase with practiced flirtatious wit. She is largely oblivious to the downward direction of their lives. But Haley’s increasingly desperate measures to provide a roof over their head and the ramifications of her actions – ranging from social ostracization to the attention of the authorities – means the film unfolds with a grim inevitability.
What are we to make of Haley? With social skills that could easily garner her an appearance on the Hard Prisons reality TV series, she is difficult to like or empathise with. Neither neglectful nor caring she approaches parenting with the part-time commitment of a foul mouthed primary school buddy. And while she includes Moonee in her escapades, she has no capacity for modelling emotional regulation or an inclination to protect her daughter from the antisocial behaviour that surrounds them.
The Florida Project draws a line between the stresses on Haley’s life and her behaviour – erratic, unbalanced, vengeful, inarticulate – and asks that audiences view it in the context of her socioeconomic circumstances. It offers no back story. This is a young woman with no partner, no family, little in the way of friendship, no hopes and, shockingly for an American film, no dreams, either for herself or Moonee. There is just the present with its infinite setbacks and urgent problems.
Some of this is obscured by Brooklynn Prince’s winsome Moonee; her irrepressible vitality is a shield. If there is any saving grace is the film is careful not to exploit her vulnerability and innocence. With so few reprieves, I can’t tell you how grateful and relieved I was for this crucial artistic decision. This is a difficult film but it's also hard to watch.