“That’s my favourite tree,” Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) tells her friend “because it’s fallen but it still grows.” It’s a moment of lyrical beauty, underlined by a long shot of the two kids sitting in the tree itself, and sums up the theme of The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s Tangerine follow-up.
Six-year-old Moonee lives with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) at the Magic Castle Motel in Kissimmee, Florida, just down the road from Disneyland. It’s the height of Summer and Moonee with her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera). They spend their days hanging out together, getting into trouble and tormenting the hotel manager Bobby, played by the ever reliable but in this brilliant Willem Dafoe. Halley doesn’t have a job and pays the weekly motel bill by illegally selling perfumes to tourists out of a bag.
Everyone at the motel is barely making it and evictions for prostitution or non-payment of rent are a regular occurrence. Moonee and her pals have to make their own entertainment, whether it’s spitting competitions or exploring the abandoned condo development, all the time narrating their own adventures and playing at being grown ups. “Will you marry me?” she asks Scooty. “Not right now,” he replies. “I’d rather not.” As with the thematically similar Beasts of the Southern Wild, poverty here isn’t viewed through a miserabilist lens. These kids are free and vibrant and Baker has elicited stunningly authentic performances from his whole cast. Moonee in particular is a spitfire of a girl, hilariously cheeky and smart-mouthed, a Minnie the Minx, who has a Tom Sawyer talent for getting her friends and herself into trouble. “This is the room we’re not supposed to go in, so we’re going in,” she tells a new arrival on a tour of the motel.
The kids are never mean to each other. They beg winningly for coins so they can buy ice-cream: “Can you give me some money? I really want an ice-cream and I’ve only got five cents.” Halley also treats her daughter as a fun pal – they have a shared love of burping competitions, plastic jewelry and flipping people off – but it is obvious that she is on such a slippery slope that even the slightest push will send her down. As she says herself: “I can’t get arrested again.” That downward journey does start, but Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch avoid the stereotypes or any moralising about the kids and their parents. Having dumped the iPhone cinematography of his first film, Baker’s film benefits from some beautiful cinematography by Alexis Zabe, bringing out the vibrant palette of Florida in the Summer and the neon-like shades of the surroundings – one of the motels is actually called The Purple Place.
The song which opens the film is Kool & the Gangs’ overused Celebration. At first, there’s an anticipation that its use might be ironic but despite the desperation of the circumstances, there is still a sense that these are good times. Although traditional families are absent, this is a new non-traditional family. Even Bobby takes on the role of the much put upon father figure, in one amazing scene protecting the children from a potential paedophile. The Florida Project is a tale of children which never talks down to them, a To Kill a Mockingbird for Trump’s America. It’s triumph is its determined optimism, even if it admits that is probably a fantasy. It’s a tale of the fallen who, like Moonee’s favourite tree, keeps on growing regardless.