Child actor Brooklynn Prince shines in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a vibrant story of America’s poor set in the otherworldly shadow of Walt Disney World. If American Honey is an American poverty epic, then this is a snapshot of that same world. Six-year-old Moonee (Prince) and her mum, Halley (Bria Vinaite), are tragically stuck in a Florida motel. It’s summer break and Halley is struggling for work, leaving Moonee to run riot across the site with her friends. They’ve got nobody to watch out for them beyond Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the benevolent, but overworked, motel manager and a paternal figure to so many of these fatherless children.
Baker’s last feature, the lauded Tangerine, became known for having been shot on an iPhone. However, he’s made a 180-degree turn here to 35 mm film and he makes full use of the textured stock. Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe draw the film’s world in child-friendly colour codes. Moonee’s motel is referred to as “the purple place” and is painted a pastel lilac, extending to the kerbs lining the parking lot. Elsewhere, peripheral locations, such as the Orange World gift shop, are presented in wide establishing shots, as if samples from a line of Floridian postcards titled “Dizzyland”.
The rich colour work becomes quite expressionistic. Baker and his costume department mix and match outfits to compliment and contrast each location, creating a watercolour-like haze through which all these shades can pop. The gorgeous Florida sun, and the fact that Baker keeps the camera almost exclusively at waist height, as if through a child’s eye, enhances the striking worldview. Helicopters loom large way overhead: impossibly far away, yet almost close enough to touch, and a painful reminder of the residents’ stagnancy.
Dafoe delivers a truly tender performance as he traverses unwanted guests, devilish children and topless bathers. Bobby’s a fiercely good person, a trait not always celebrated in cinema. His distinctive gnarled features, which usually signal a dangerous mania, soften in a beautifully against type performance. He and Vinaite act very well opposite the youngsters. Prince’s performance, though, is far greater than her rapport with the adult co-stars. She has a precocious confidence that keeps the film buoyant even when she leads her posse too far.
It’s in the final scenes when the full scope of Prince’s talents is revealed. As Moonee and Halley’s fragile situation reaches boiling point, Prince is required to drop her defiant facade and break down. She does it stupendously. It’s a really surprising and powerful moment and one to be treasured, even when Baker follows it with a jarring shift in direction for the scene.
This final sequence, notable for being the one use of iPhone cinematography, undermines the tougher moments the film had begun to grapple with. Although, it does leave us with the feeling that, ultimately, the only thing that can really save these kids (in the moment, at least) is each other.