Truffaut, master of the child’s eye view, said that his wish was to depict “children’s tremendous ability to stand up to life and survive”. Something of the same spirit infuses Sean Baker’s impressionistic yet clear-eyed drama about a summer’s antics and hard times in a rundown Florida motel filled with low-income families.
Certificate 15 111m 28s
Director Sean Baker
Bobby Brooklynn Willem Dafoe
Moonee Kimberly Prince
Hailey Bria Vinaite
Jancey Valeria Cotto
Scooty Christopher Rivera
Jack Caleb Landry Jones
Head of her own gang of ‘little rascals’, precocious six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) runs wild, largely unsupervised by her loving but rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Both transgress cheerfully despite the exasperated interventions of the Magic Castle motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, bringing a tired, resigned kindness not seen since 1992’s Light Sleeper).
Less mother and child than co-conspirators in reckless fun, Moonee and Halley live for the moment, and on the margins, hawking wholesale perfumes to rich tourists holidaying in the neighbouring Disney resort. These two worlds scrape up against one another sharply. Some of the film’s best moments show Moonee and Halley sneaking across the boundary: scamming vast hotel buffet breakfasts, or sharing a single cupcake under a popping sky of resort fireworks.
Baker’s films have long been interested in the overlooked – riding shotgun with a Chinese-meal delivery man in Take Out (2004), a Ghanaian street hustler in Prince of Broadway (2008) and, most famously, transgender sex workers in Tangerine (2015). Here it’s the hidden world of ‘motel kids’, where families scrabble to make rent for single rooms and are forced to move out once a month to avoid establishing residency.
Shot in an observational neorealist style but with an eye for the gaudy, sherbet-coloured beauty of the setting, it’s a warm, sympathetic piece. Non-judgemental about mothering, it shows the sheer rule-breaking fun of Moonee and co’s behaviour, while acknowledging its very real risks.
Immersing the viewer in Moonee’s view of her own ‘magical kingdom’ of motel balconies, kitschy strip malls and swampland, the narrative nimbly strings together her child-sized adventures. Like an edgier and unsentimental Small Change (1976), the film shows Moonee and her little band busying themselves spitting on cars, yelling insults at a topless OAP sunbather or grifting ice-creams from tourists. Baker takes his inspiration here, without incongruity, from Hal Roach’s TV series The Little Rascals. Yet he’s always conscious that unbridled play in public spaces is marked out nowadays as antisocial rather than mischievous. The texture of the children’s days is captured in fine, close-up detail – harrumphing at adult chivvying, the delight of rain on skin, finding cows in a field (“I took you on a safari!”). Sliced into it is their gruff guardian Bobby’s thankless daily round, dealing with everything from bedbugs to a child predator.
If Baker’s ‘slow cinema’ approach gives a welcome depth, it also makes for an episodic, slightly soggy middle section. In contrast to Tangerine’s revenge-plot momentum, it dawdles, albeit absorbingly. So when the story pivots to Halley’s spiral into sex work, there’s a much needed hit of drama. Especially since, like Fish Tank (2009) and American Honey (2016), the script (co-written by Baker and long-time collaborator Chris Bergoch) refrains from moralising, concentrating instead on the rushing highs and lows of Halley’s jaunts and fights, the sting as her closest friendship collapses rancorously.
Transmitting a rebellious energy into these scenes, first-time actress Vinaite crackles. Yet her raucous, one-note style can’t adapt to tender, more nuanced scenes with Moonee. Beside Halley’s immature rages, Prince’s Moonee conveys a smart-mouthed, take-charge precocity that seems adult beyond her years: “I always know when grown-ups are about to cry,” she remarks sagely. Watching her racked with misery at a key point, you’re almost surprised to see her vulnerable, out of fixes. Veteran actor Dafoe blends in seamlessly with the sharp naturalism of the film’s first-time performers, his understated Bobby torn between chastising chaotic families and bailing them out.
Around them, Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabé wrap 35mm widescreen landscapes of considerable beauty, a sudden spread of twilight balcony lights or a melting sunset turning the candy-coloured motel into a hardscrabble wonderland. Even when Moonee’s gang accidentally torch an abandoned condo, their play in white wafts of insulation (“Ghost poop!”) has a child’s delight in everyday enchantments. This may also be what’s responsible for the film’s single sizeable misjudgement: a late-on swerve into wishful fancy.
Nonetheless, it’s the film’s sympathetic eye that ensures it doesn’t exoticise the family’s plight, Beasts of the Southern Wild style, or dip into poverty porn. Drunken brawls, pissed-off johns and vicious catfights are simply day-to-day eruptions here, blowing in and out of the motel like the Florida weather. Full of compassion and curiosity about its characters’ fragile lives, this memorable drama establishes Baker as among cinema’s most original chroniclers of childhood.
Little Miss Sunshine
Following the success of his iPhone-shot buddy movie Tangerine, Sean Baker returns with another tale of lives blighted by poverty in The Florida Project, depicting the adventures of six-year-old Moonee, who lives in a rundown motel in the shadow of Disney World. By Philip Concannon.