The Florida Project is a glowing call-back to the greats of the Italian New Wave, says Dan Slevin.
Back in 2013, I had the good fortune to interview writer-director Sean Baker while he was visiting the New Zealand International Film Festival with his feature Starlet about a young porn actress trying to make it in the badlands of the San Fernando Valley. I mentioned to him at the time that he seemed to capture something more than just the people and the culture of the place, he’d captured the quality of the light itself. It was infused with a Southern California dusty pastel haze which I found quite beautiful considering the subject matter.
He was very gracious and thanked me for noticing something that he had been very conscious of during filming. And, of, course, for his next film he went in an entirely different direction – shooting Tangerine, an audacious drama featuring transgender hookers in LA, almost entirely on an iPhone. His eye for sky remained undiminished, however.
Now he is back in cinemas again with a new film that premiered at Cannes earlier this year – The Florida Project – and he has eschewed digital hand-held production values for old fashioned 35mm film. And still he has a feel for light is as strong as any director working today (although much credit must go to cinematographer Alexis Zabe who might be best known to film festival audiences for his work with Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas – Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux)
Cast mostly with unknowns, The Florida Project is set in the cheap motels around Kissimmee, Florida, close to the vacation magnets of Sea World, Universal Orlando and, of course, Walt Disney World – the county’s second largest employer. But our characters aren’t holidaymakers. They are the virtually-homeless scraping together an existence week-to-week, having to move out of their motel rooms once a month so they can say they are not long-term guests.
This is like a sequel to Ramin Bahrani’s angry 99 Homes where the working poor, stiffed by unscrupulous developers and real estate agents, found themselves kicked out of perfectly good houses and living out of the backs of cars.
It’s all from a child’s point of view. Moonee, who is six-going-on-21, is played by precociously talented Brookynn Prince and she is one of a large cast of virtual unknowns who are revelations in this film. They are superbly supported by the wonderful Willem Dafoe as the long-suffering Bobby, manager of the motel where they live. He displays patience and kindness of biblical proportions and his giant heart anchors a film that threatens to become too unsympathetic.
The main culprit is Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a heavily tattooed exotic dancer (and, we learn, occasional sex worker) who is ill-equipped to provide the care this child needs but doesn’t realise. And, understandably, gets aggressive when these deficiencies are identified. She thinks that love and grifting is enough when clearly it isn’t.
However, when Child Protection Services are finally called, they don’t seem to be any better.
The Florida Project is a tough-but-beautiful watch, like a glowing colour version of something from the post-war Italian New Wave. Hard-bitten characters using all of their resourcefulness to survive in a world that no longer cares to make room for them. It’s no accident that Disney looms large over all of these characters lives – even the name of the motel is a dubious play on the Magic Kingdom that citizens and vacationers are sure that they’ve been promised.
The Florida Project is in select cinemas around New Zealand now.