WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
In his latest film The Florida Project, Sean Baker tells the poignant story of the sweetly simple summer of six-year-old Moonee. Set amongst the garishly purple motels of the deprived highway neighbourhoods of the Sunshine State, the blitheness of a child’s holiday boredom mixes with the darker struggles and frustrations of Moonee’s young, troubled mother Halley. The action moves slowly under the oppressive summer heat, but Brooklynn Prince’s striking performance draws you into the touching subtleties of her relationships with her mother, friends and motel manager Bobby.
The insatiable energy and imagination of the six year old makes the mundane captivating. With the same irreverent ebullience of her mother, still yet untainted by hardship, it is hard not to laugh at her outrageous precocity and impertinence. But Halley’s self-destructiveness is a bleak reminder of Moonee’s future. This dichotomy of light-hearted rebelliousness and the potential for a darker volatility inspires a kind of despairing tenderness, imbued in Bobby’s poorly concealed affection. Willem Dafoe perfectly captures the well of compassion that sits just below the surface of the stern authority of this motel manager.
Central to the story is Moonee’s relationship with Scooty and Jancey, her companions in this commercial wasteland. Their carefree adventures foment a note of nostalgia that diffuses through the film, making the occasional reference to twerking or the faint glow of an iPad almost surprising. But this merely serves as a reminder that the resourcefulness and boundless imaginations of children prevail, regardless of the decade. However, their freedom is also a reminder of everything they lack – the restraints that become the foundations of a stable, happy life.
Moonee’s adventures with her mother are equally unrestrained, and it is hard not to be touched by their unconventional, yet loving relationship. But Halley’s hopelessness, and the desperate choices she makes to keep her head above water make her seem almost more vulnerable than her own child. Whilst her neglect opens up a nostalgic utopia of childhood freedom for Moonee and her friends, the amusement at their wildness mingles with uneasy tension as their adventures dance on the edge of danger. In this way, Baker draws us into the moral dilemma that the story builds towards. The bright colours of diners and Disneyland become sickly sweet as the grim reality of deprivation seeps into the fantasy world of the six-year-old. The inevitable but heart-wrenching arrival of social services at the end is undercut by the spirit of youth as the music kicks in and Moonee and her friend run off to Disneyland in a beautifully flippant yet dramatic final scene – an escape to that utopia of childhood fast escaping her clutches.