From Sean Baker, director of the breakout 2015 hit TANGERINE, THE FLORIDA PROJECT might appear on the surface to be an American version of Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009). It is, in fact, a very different beast. A much funnier, more satirical beast.
The plot is very minimalist; for much of the first hour, we are merely following around a 6-year-old girl and her friends. This girl is Moonee (a charismatic debut by Brooklynn Kimberly Prince). She’s living with her young, volatile mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, another newcomer) in a motel managed by the object of much of her mischief, Bobby Hicks (Willem Defoe).
The first half of the film is absolutely terrific. A meandering pace allows the characters and world to fully breathe, and for the audience to settle into the offbeat brand of comedy. Which is, incidentally, hilarious. Prince is absolutely hysterical as this headstrong kid who’s unafraid to yell at adults (“You’re not welcome!”). It’s a character who could have strayed into grating territory, but she (and all the young cast) remain consistently crowd-pleasing. Vinaite manages the difficult task of making her character simultaneously empathetic and threatening, often in the same line or extension of a middle finger. With all this untapped new talent on show, you might have forgiven Defoe for phoning his role in as a cameo, but he gives perhaps the most understated, sweet and funny role of his career, as a guy who’s just trying his damnedest to run things smoothly.
…the final sequence could be argued as one big punchline…
That’s a key theme in the film: people trying their damnedest. Another theme seems to be that of childhood innocence. Mooney and her friends have it in spades, yet they also try very hard to emulate adult behaviours (even if they are those of a rather foul-mouthed adult). This provides a subtle parallel to the adult characters, who at times, feel just as much like children role-playing as adults. Halley definitely feels like a mother before her time, not yet mature enough to handle such responsibility. Even Bobby, the film’s frequent voice of reason, in a scene where his boss visits to remind him of the rules regarding bikes, feels like a young teen desperate to please his dad.
The second half of the film is equally terrific, but in a slightly different way. Whereas the first half used the motel and Florida as a comedy sandbox, the second hour starts to say something very serious about its titular state. The lead actors are forced to play very dark, very intense scenes, and they all do breathtakingly well. Vinaite brings her danger to the forefront, Defoe brings out his character’s heart, and Prince tears all the audience’s hearts in half. All the while, signs for Disneyworld and other such candy-coloured products hang in the background, as if representative of the brighter childhood promised by advertising for Florida, in stark contrast to the childhoods we’re actually seeing.
The comedy doesn’t disappear though, and the final sequence could be argued as one big punchline, that could go down as underwhelming or as fantastically cutting. Much like its characters and setting, there is much more to THE FLORIDA PROJECT than first meets the eye.