Simon Dillon reviews the brilliantly bittersweet masterpiece.

The Florida Project

Following the audacious Tangerine, Sean Baker's new film The Florida Project is a truly outstanding celebration of childhood, set against a social realist backdrop amongst Florida's more deprived residents.

At a budget motel near Disneyland, the film follows fearless, six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a bratty yet adorable little girl whose friendships, pranks and dusk-till-dawn antics evoke an utterly plausible yet near magical wonder. These children, and Moonee's rebellious but caring mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) run mischievous rings around curmudgeonly but kindly motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Shot on colourful 35mm, frequently in magic-hour, these sequences are an absolute joy, and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, their opulent glow is contrasted with Halley's quiet desperation at being one step away from eviction, arrest or intervention from social services. After failing as a waitress and lapdancer, she resorts to selling knock-off perfume to holiday makers and ultimately measures of a more desperate nature. These sequences recall the very best of Ken Loach, but are mercifully bereft of his political axe-grinding. It's also worth making clear that although this is a film about children, this is not a film for children (it contains a lot of swearing and other content that puts it obviously off limits to younger eyes).

Performances are absolutely outstanding. Working from a superb, frequently improvised screenplay (by Baker and Chris Bergoch), Brooklynn Prince is a revelation, and gives the best, most naturalistic child performance I have seen in a very long time. Vinaite is also excellent, but I particularly liked Dafoe's contribution. Perpetually irritated with Halley's late rent and trash talk, he nonetheless looks out for her and Moonee (not to mention the other children).

Bobby's basic decency, and indeed the empathy the audience feels towards all the lead characters, stands in stark contrast with the bureaucratic and cruel system that criminalises and victimises them. The condemnation of said system is inherent rather than preached, hence my earlier remark about the film lacking the more eye-rolling elements of Loach. The final few seconds are brilliantly ambiguous: simultaneously triumphant and desperately sad.

All things considered, The Florida Project pulls off that rarest of tricks, in that it is a film that makes you laugh, cry and think. In depicting a world on the fringes of manufactured dreams, where the children are blissfully unaware of the fragility of their existence, Baker has created a brilliantly bittersweet masterpiece. I hope it gets a lot of Oscar nominations. CR

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