THE Florida Project (Cert 15A, 111 mins) takes a look at all the wonder, innocence and irrepressible curiosity of childhood with an honesty rarely seen on screen.
Director Sean Baker tackles his chosen subject with the same blend of glee and gloom we saw in his previous effort, 2015’s excellent Tangerine, delivering what is easily one of this year’s best comedies – and most troubling, moving dramas.
Six-year-old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince (one of the cast’s many newcomers), lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinai) in an extended-stay motel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), located on a tourist-trap strip of road that leads to Disney World.
Moonee’s world is populated with unfortunate outcasts of society, the downtrodden and the violent.
Despite these surroundings, Moonee – along with friends Scooty and Jancey – turns the everyday into an adventure, exploring the weird, wild world that naturally manifests on the fringes of commercial wonderlands like Disney.
Moonee raises hell with all the irresistible wonder of a precocious child, unaware of the increasingly dangerous lengths to which her young, rebellious mother must go to provide for her.
Dafoe turns in a career-best performance here as the motel’s cautious, observant and compassionate hotel manager, falling into a heedful father-figure position and even finding himself having to provide from time to time.
Dafoe has never before enraptured us with a character so completely and utterly human – Bobby is a man fully aware of what he can do to help, yet resistant of becoming too involved in such a broken, sad story.
As with all of The Florida Project’s characters, there’s clearly a darkness to his past – one only barely hinted at, but ever-lurking underneath.
A brief conversation with his son, played by Caleb Landry Jones (in an uncharacteristically subdued performance), reveals a sadness essential to his character, but never directly commented on.
The rebellious Halley clearly comes from misfortune, though – again – the past is never commented on, just left to linger beneath a thin surface.
Halley shows concern for nothing other than the wellbeing of her daughter, but this is a concern that can only be stretched so far when faced with the reality of survival on the fringes of society.
Bria Vinai communicates a compassion for her daughter that is hidden behind abrasive, rough edges but is all the more endearing in its subtlety.
It’s Moonee, however, that guides us through this world of misfortune, turning what should be a very sad story into a joyous, celebratory experience.
Brooklynn Prince’s breakout performance has to be seen to be believed, bursting with all of the honesty, curiosity and compassion that is innate to a six-year-old, but rarely (if ever) communicated by one on screen.
It’s Sean Beaker’s deft, controlled direction here that brings all the joy, anger and sadness together into a wonderfully coherent and naturally told story.
While Baker’s approach is slow, methodical and subdued, each and every frame is bursting with life, ready to explode with all the pastel colours, clear blues and deep greens of postcard Florida.
The Florida Project will pick you up just before it throws you down, always coupling joy with sorrow, yet ensuring the former filters through just that little bit more, so that we’re left in high spirits despite many traumatic turns.
This is empathetic filmmaking at its best, raising critical questions about modern America but keeping us entertained – a light in a time of darkness that serves us to illuminate the problems, just as much as it guides us through them.