REVIEW / DRAMA
THE FLORIDA PROJECT (NC16)
112 minutes/Opens today
The story: In the shadows of the Walt Disney World theme park in Florida are those who live from hand-to-mouth, just one step away from being homeless. Jobless Halley (Bria Vinaite) has a six-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and she also helps to keep an eye on Scooty (Christopher Rivera), the son of her friend(Mela Murder) when she is at work waitressing. No-nonsense Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the manager of the motel they live in.
Disneyland is billed as the "Happiest Place on Earth" and the theme park in Florida is surrounded by candy-coloured buildings catering to the whims and needs of tourists.
But there is also a group of people living a precarious existence in that same space, who struggle to keep their heads above water.
Halley is jobless and hustles to make the motel rent, first by hawking perfumes and later by offering sexual services. Her irresponsible behaviour has ramifications not just for herself, but also her daughter.
It could easily have been a grim story, but co-writer and director Sean Baker has made a film that, for the most part, does not feel sombre. He is best known for the iPhone-shot indie drama Tangerine (2015) about a transgender sex worker.
The vibe here is one of cinema verite as the camera follows the characters as they go about their lives.
Baker focuses his attention on the children and draws beautifully naturalistic performances from a largely non-professional cast which includes Prince as the irrepressible Moonee and Valeria Cotto as her new friend Jancey.
Everything is a game for the kids, from launching spitballs at a car to hustling for money to buy ice cream.
Which makes the ending pack even more of an emotional punch when Prince turns on her acting chops.
Vinaite, cast after Baker saw her in an Instagram post, is also good as Halley, essentially a petulant and vindictive child who lashes out when she does not get her way.
The actual kids have essentially minimal adult supervision, except for motel manager Bobby, who keeps an eye out for strangers and other dangers that they might encounter.
In a nice change from his more showy roles in films such as The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) and Death Note (2017), Dafoe gives a warm performance as the harassed but decent manager and has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.