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The Florida Project
In 2015, New Jersey-born writer-director Sean Baker dazzled with his fifth feature, the buddy comedy Tangerine, which he shot on three handheld smartphones using non-professional actors. The award-winning film mined humour, wit and empathy between transgender sex workers in contemporary Los Angeles, elegantly upending crude stereotypes of a neglected subculture, for whom the American dream soured a long time ago. Baker upgrades his technology but remains defiantly on the frayed fringe of society for The Florida Project, an exuberant portrait of families living hand-to-mouth in the shadow of the fairytale sparkle of Walt Disney World. His script, co-written by Chris Bergoch, unfolds over one lazy summer and is anchored by searing performances from newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince as a mother and daughter, who will do anything (including cheat and steal) to keep a roof over their heads. There are certainly grim moments including a suspected paedophile approaching children beside a highway and an intervention by social services that threatens to culminate in tragedy. Yet with each body blow, the film softens the impact with earthy humour and humanity, exposing chinks of vulnerability beneath the potty-mouthed characters' steely facades. Single mother Halley (Vinaite) sells designer fragrances to wealthy theme park visitors, aided by her precocious six-year-old daughter Moonee (Prince), in order to pay for a single room at the Magic Castle Motel. It's a struggle to raise the rent and placate long-suffering manager Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe), so Halley relies on the kindness of friends and strangers including upstairs neighbour Ashley (Mela Murder), who works at a diner and sneaks waffles out of the back door. During the day, little Moonee goes on adventures with other Magic Castle kids including Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik), and new girl Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother in nearby Futureland Inn. Their escapades drive Bobby to distraction and result in a blaze at an abandoned development across the highway. When Ashley learns that her boy Scooty was involved in arson, she forbids him from socialising with Moonee. The two mothers come to blows and an increasingly volatile Halley resorts to desperate measures to keep her dysfunctional family together. The Florida Project rests heavily on seven-year-old poppet Prince and she is a natural in front of the camera. Conversations between the children feel spontaneous - "I wish they made forks out of candy then you could eat the fork after your meal!" - and on-screen chemistry between Prince and Vinaite is utterly believable. Baker draws on the garish signage and sweet shop colours of Orlando to create a playground for his pre-teen protagonists, who vandalise without consideration of the consequences. It's an emotionally raw and unflinching character study that collapses in the gutter, staring up at stars that don't grant anyone's wishes.