The Florida Project is an empathy-provoking series of vignettes on childhood

Director Sean Baker doesn’t always make it easy for us to like these characters, but any moral judgements are reserved only for snobs and hypocrites.

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“I Decided to Be Awesome Today” reads the slogan on the banana-yellow T-shirt worn by six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). It all depends on how you define awesomeness. In the opening minutes of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, she and her best friend, Scooty (Christopher Rivera), hang over the balcony at the dilapidated Futureland motel (“Stay in the Future Today”) and spit on a parked car, then berate the owner when she threatens to tell their parents: “Try it, bitch, we don’t live here!”  Don’t children say the most darling things?

In fact, Moonee resides with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a single cluttered room in the Magic Castle motel next door, under the protective gaze of the genial manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). This is a pay-by-the-week flophouse but the film ensures its name is not entirely ironic. The cinematographer Alexis Zabe (who shot the gorgeous Silent Light) works here in wide-eyed 35mm to make the motel complex look practically edible. Its walls turn from purple to pale violet depending on the intensity of the sunlight. When the sky blushes mauve near the end of the film, it feels like a sorry attempt at mimicry. Nature comes off second best.

Smooth Steadicam tracking shots perform a similarly transformative trick on the characters, lending them an elegant dignity. In common with the TV series Shameless, the picture encourages its audience to empathise with people we might not choose as neighbours. Baker and his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, are drawn to the disenfranchised; their last film, the fruity Tangerine, which was shot on an iPhone, was populated by transgender prostitutes and their johns.

In The Florida Project, the marginalisation is physical as well as economic. Halley and Moonee live a mile outside Disney World, near the turn-off for Seven Dwarfs Lane. (The movie takes its name from Walt Disney’s working title for the theme park.) Their room overlooks a tourists’ helipad, and mother and daughter are careful to give the finger to every passing chopper. It’s practically a superstition.

The film takes the form of a series of vignettes on childhood, like a below-the-breadline version of Truffaut’s Small Change. Dramatic moments are treated with disarming levity. When a derelict house is burning, Halley gets Moonee to pose in front of it for a picture, whooping at her: “This is so much better than TV!” What she doesn’t know is that Moonee and Scooty started the fire. Scooty’s mother only cottons on to his guilt because he won’t leave the motel room to come and cheer on the flames like any normal kid.

Baker’s work with his largely inexperienced cast is relaxed and playful, and the film’s tone is fairly assured. He doesn’t always make it easy for us to like these characters but any moral judgements are reserved only for snobs and hypocrites, such as the tourist who visits Magic Castle for sex while deriding the place as a dump.

Baker’s one failure of nerve comes in the scene in which Bobby escorts from the premises a suspected paedophile. The character’s transparent function in the film is to distract us from any queasiness we might feel about Halley’s sexualised parenting; he’s like the token woman in a buddy movie who is there to prove that the heroes aren’t gay.

Halley encourages Moonee to work on her twerking and devises a game called Swimsuit Selfies when she’s really taking photos of herself for an escort website. But Moonee’s remarkable self-possession is evidence enough of her wellbeing. Uncouth she may be but she is careful to thank Scooty when he gives her a leg-up through her motel-room window.

And she has no problem sharing with her playmates. A single ice-cream, paid for by pretending to be asthmatic and begging for change, is passed back and forth between them, all the way down to the last nub of the cone. Then they skip off home from Twistee Treat, a kiosk in the shape of an ice-cream, past the gaudy painted dome of Orange World and the gift shop presided over by a giant omniscient plastic wizard. Bursting out of the awning with his sceptre, he is the Dr TJ Eckleburg of this feverish American dream. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship