The Florida Project: An earnest insight into struggle

Whether it's the friendship between Dree Hemingway's 21-year-old and elderly Sadie in Starlet or the bond between those screeching on the street in Tangerine, the reality of friendships, along with their ebbs and flows, have been central to film-maker Sean Baker's catalogue.

Expanding that out for The Florida Project, Baker widens his view to the residents of a crummy motel run by Willem Dafoe's patient and paternal Bobby.

The purple motel sits near Orlando's Disney World, its hint of promise and dreams so close by – a place where the rich and families go to fulfil their dreams and inhabit an escapist world of fantasy.

But for the residents of said motel, escapism is also on their minds – but their form of escapism is a desperate scrabble for money and to ensure their motel rent is paid.

It's into this world that Baker thrusts us – but from the viewpoint of a clutch of rambunctious kids who hurtle around the motel and its nearby tourist haunts with varying degrees of boredom.

Whether it's conning those visiting the local vendors for ice cream money (because they claim, they have asthma and the doctor's ordered it) or playing in the motel and turning off the power, their lives are about the freedom of escapism, the pursuit of naivete, unaware of the cruelties of the world around them.

Chief among these is Moonee (breakout star Brooklynn Prince, both vulnerable and brassy and up there with Beasts Of The Southern Wild's child actor QuvenzhanÈ Wallis) whose mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, discovered on Instagram by Baker) is scaling the walls of desperation to feed her child and earn money.

While more a freewheeling tale than a specifically strong narrative story, The Florida Project's exploration of the socio-economic damage done in America is as compelling as it is depressingly vibrant.

With a young cast of unknown actors filling out the leads more than admirably thanks to their natural performances, the film's strength comes from its trajectory of uncertainty. There are moments you can see what's coming and much like most of Baker's work, there's a breaking point that pushes it all to the extreme.

There's an irony in the fact The Florida Project was the original name for Disney World and now the reality of the disparity of the wealth means motels like Bobby's are more like projects and slums – there's heartache to be had here.

Whether it's in a child being forced to leave with his dad and having to give away all his toys for space in the car, or the begging of Halley from a friend for the basics like food, the film's unflinching in its world view.

But here's the crux with The Florida Project – it's never, ever judgemental.

Baker has a way of imbuing both his characters and his situations with a sense of propriety. He swerves from judgement on actions, merely presenting the facts of any given situation and the potential devastation it could cause.

And while the ultimate ending doesn't exactly feel like it's being true to its subjects, shifting from reality to fantasy, there's a lot to love on the journey itself.

It's a crucial difference in this film-making – and while he's slowly becoming the deliverer of the less fortunate or the world less-oft glimpsed, he's also becoming their champion.

Thanks to restraint, heart and sensible heads on all, The Florida Project emerges as both a free-falling descent into reality and an ultimately inspiring and grounding eye-opener to all.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair
Director: Sean Baker

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