A film about people living in rundown Florida motels has won raves at the Toronto Film Festival and at Cannes. But is that praise deserved? Critic Caryn James weighs in.

The Florida Project has the eye-opening freshness and precision of a documentary.  It is set in rundown motels, relics of the 1960s, with lilac stucco walls and deceptively cheerful Disney-inspired names like The Magic Castle and Futureland Inn. Impoverished families make do in these bug-infested, low-rent alternatives to real homes, not far from Disney World itself. But Sean Baker’s fictional drama is also a maddening, uneven mix: immensely well-made and acted, but repetitive and ultimately too self-congratulatory to work. 

Baker has said he sees the film as a modern day Little Rascals

The film’s most distinctive feature also becomes a big problem. It sees the world through the eyes of Moonee, a rambunctious six-year-old who lives at The Magic Castle with her mother, Halley. The mother has giant roses tattooed below her neck, and vivid green streaks in her hair. Her behaviour is just as loud and out-of-control as her child’s.

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Moonee’s best friends are Scootee and Jancey, whose families also live in single motel rooms. The kids spend their summer days running through strip-mall parking lots, begging strangers for change so they can share an ice cream cone, and amusing themselves by spitting from the motel balcony onto cars below. 

Baker has said he sees the film as a modern day Little Rascals,doing for the economic crash of 2008 what that old movie series did during the Great Depression, with prankish kids making audiences laugh. But despite a few comic, smart-mouthed remarks from Moonee, that connection registers as either an unrealised goal or pure public relations spin.  

The names Moonee, Scootee and Jancey try too hard to be cute. The three friends screech endlessly and are so hyperactive it’s as if their ice cream was laced with amphetamines. A little of this goes a very long way. Still, Baker keeps piling on scenes after he has made his point about both Moonee’s resilience and the dangers she is oblivious to, from the cars that race by as she plays along the highway to her own mother’s nonchalance. 

It’s quite proud of itself for tackling a tough subject

Baker’s fifth feature, The Florida Project follows his highly praised – I’d argue overpraised – Tangerine. That 2015 film earned critical points for having been shot on an enhanced iPhone and for its heroines, two transgender sex workers played by trans women who had not acted before. The film was never as effective as its concept and  never entirely overcame the often stilted delivery of its non-professional cast.

Sunshine state

As with Tangerine, a whiff of self-importance wafts from The Florida Project – it’s quite proud of itself for tackling a tough subject – and this time adds a layer of earnestness.

The Florida Project is far better made, though. Shot on film as well as digital, it captures the sunny, confectionary, retro look of the motels. The constantly moving camera reflects the restless energy of Moonee and her friends.

And non-actors blend more seamlessly with professionals here. Willem Dafoe gives a vivid yet understated performance as the motel manager, a decent man who is patient with Moonee and even with Halley, always behind on her rent.

Brooklynn Prince, who has had some acting experience in small parts, is amazingly natural as Moonee. And Bria Vinaite, who had not acted before, pulls off an incredibly difficult role as Halley. She screams and curses at a social worker who won’t give her a bus pass. She pours a fizzy drink on the floor of a motel reception area because she’s angry. She is vulgar and offensive yet actually tries to care for her child by buying cut-rate perfume and peddling it on the street. Halley is so without resources that she doesn’t even realise what a bad mother she is, which makes her poignant.  

But her trajectory, which dominates the film’s last stretch, is obvious, and exposes the pitfall of assuming a child’s perspective. Despite Moonee’s point of view, we’ve seen Halley as adults do. Her actions don’t carry the weight of inevitability but the tired sense that we saw it all coming.  The Florida Project was what the state’s Walt Disney World was called in its planning stages during the 1960s. Underneath the vibrancy of Moonee’s spirit, Baker delivers a heavy-handed statement about the fraudulent hopes offered by Disney magic, and the way so many American dreams have been shattered.  

★★★☆☆ 

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