Review: ‘The Florida Project’ Tells Us More About Life Than It Does About Movies

US auteur Sean Baker’s slice-of-life indie has been generating a surprising amount of awards heat. The surprise is no reflection on its quality – which is beyond reproach – but because it features a largely unknown cast, no moralising or easy redemptions, and tells us more about life than it does about movies.

Clattering with colour and noise, it follows six-year-old tearaway Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) through a chaotic summer spent scraping by in a social housing motel on the outskirts of Disney World Florida. But this is no pity party, and these characters are far from martyrs. We first meet little Moonee and friends as they spit on a nice lady’s car, and scream obscenities at her. While Halley will do anything to make her rent, from begging and stealing to selling knock-off perfume, so long as she can sit around all day and smoke.

Though confusing and hard to engage with at first, mainly because there’s no exposition or obvious plot beats, the film gradually comes into focus as a child’s eye view of poverty. Halley may be a terrible mother, but she loves her daughter to the ends of the earth, and besides – what would you do differently?

Prince and Vinaite make charismatic leads, with seasoned support from Willem Dafoe, as the motel’s put-upon caretaker, and indie stalwarts Caleb Landry-Jones and Macon Blair. But what really stays with you is the extraordinary, often handheld, camerawork and Baker’s powerful sense of place. Shot against those huge, Sunshine State skies, the candy-hued motels feel less like temporary homes than tombs where the American dream goes to die.

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