A vision in lilac, the Magic Castle motel provides the setting for Sean Baker’s The Florida Project as a home to people for whom a permanent home is a rare thing.
The residents that Sean shines his film on are the children, living side by side in far from ideal conditions: this motel is their territory, their own Magic Castle.
When Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, arrived in 2015, its combination of ground-breaking iPhone filming techniques and incredible performances from trans actors in starring roles made it a must-see for film lovers and makers.
Its ‘slice of life’ style brought new stories to the forefront: an America on-screen that seemed to ring far truer than regular Hollywood exports, even though the Hollywood in this film – populated by sex-workers, and where drama in diners abounds – was a world away from La La Land and its vision of white success, fame and love.
Transferring his focus to the other side of the country, The Florida Project is set near the ever-familiar Disney World, once again taking iconic American locations and showing the reality of life for many in the surroundings.
However, this is not a gritty social realist portrait of the hidden homeless as could be expected; it is rather a story of the vitality of childhood and the ability of young children to make adventures anywhere.
Leader of the band of children is Moonee, a longer-term resident of the motel. Self-sufficient and a keen explorer, Moonee takes newcomer children on walks around the projects, straying far from the eyes of any caring adults; supports her mum in her dodgy dealings, and captures the hearts of everyone she meets. Her band of child followers have scrapes and arguments, both directly affected by and sometimes oblivious to the trials and struggles of their adults.
Using a cast of unknown actors and Willem Dafoe, Baker has managed to capture astounding performances across the board with highlights from Brooklynn Prince as Moonee and Bria Vinaite as her mother, Haylee. This world is full of complex characters, full of hypocrisy and at times dangerous behaviour but this is a film without judgement, treating the characters – and the people in the world they reflect – with deep respect.
When a film like this one comes along, it provides an opportunity to look at things through the eyes of a child: to embrace moments of joy and make the most of your lot in life. It is also a reminder that great filmmaking can illuminate worlds outside your own and bring them to life in a way only possible on a big screen.