Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is a gorgeous sugar-rush adventure and a sobering study of poverty, though it leans too much on the former for the latter to leave its sting.
Candylandby Gus Edgar
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Its title may suggest otherwise, but Sean Baker’s The Florida Project tells a universal story: a study of poverty, centred around a six-year-old named Moonee, her friends, and her mother. It lays out its three emotional counterpoints early on. There’s the escapism Moonee strives for as she bounces around a threadbare setting – a Disney-lite Magic Kingdom – with the other kids, the antics of the mother that threaten to diminish this escapism, and the mother’s persistent love for her child. From here, the film doesn’t deviate, which functions as both a choice to commit to The Florida Project’s slice-of-life evocation, and a technique for displaying the cyclical nature of poverty.
Unfortunately, it’s also a slight detriment to the film: there’s enough dramatic heft to engage interest, but not enough to maintain it; soon the hilarious and heartwarming antics of the children are exhausted. Baker acknowledges this, and that plot strand falls to the wayside – The Florida Project takes on a more sombre tone, where the bleak undercurrent of poverty that threatens to rise to the forefront in the first half eventually does in the second. As such, the film is inherently flawed in its structure. If it truly aims to represent poverty as an inescapable cycle, then the film’s chassis should follow that layout – in the end, the structure contradicts its intent, presenting a linear progression (or digression), rather than a rotation of ugly and saccharine.
Still, it’s impossible not to love the prepubescent endeavours of these kids as they wander through pastel backdrops and use their inherent adorability to snag ice cream, or their firey inquisitiveness to sneak into rooms and, er, accidentally set fire to houses. Brooklynn Prince’s turn as The Florida Project’s young protagonist is disarmingly natural, as if she’s unaware that she’s in a film. Willem Dafoe’s performance as the hotel manager is also charming, though in a wholly different way. He’s one of the only adults who seems to understand the kids, and his desire to aid them is treacle-sweet, even if, when a paedophile shows up in one scene, it veers into the manipulative.
In the end, when the inevitable does indeed occur, there’s a distinct realisation that you’ve known from the start how this particular narrative plays out – though this is somewhat diluted (if not diminished) by the closing image. The intent is there, and The Florida Project is full of it, but it’s hard to feel the impact Sean Baker’s film so desperately strives for when you’ve been preparing for it through the course of the runtime. Still, this Disney ride is incredibly charming while it lasts.
The Florida Project premiered in Europe at the 70th Cannes Film Festival and screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival. It is released on 10 November 2017 in the UK.