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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Film review: The Florida Project is a poignant look at life on the fringes of US society

Film takes a rare glance at poverty in the shadow of Florida's Disney World

Cast members Prince, Valeria Cott, and Christopher Rivera with director Sean Baker. Getty
Cast members Prince, Valeria Cott, and Christopher Rivera with director Sean Baker. Getty

Six-year old Moonee (­Brooklynn Prince) lives in The Magic Castle, a Florida budget motel as far from The Magic Castle of Disney fantasy as you can get, although within its shadow.

The contrast between the shiny, polished tourist attraction and the slum residents next door is stark.

Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is an unemployed single parent who ekes out a living selling knock-off perfume to tourists and residents and eats mostly courtesy of her best friend’s fast-food joint job.

Halley’s barely a grown-up herself and to call her parenting methods liberal would be an understatement. Moonee runs riot around the neighbourhood with her friends, trashing empty apartments, upsetting the neighbours by spitting on their cars, and generally being a tearaway. She’s not a bad kid but with so little going on in her life, petty misdemeanours are the best way to fire up her active imagination.

The lead performances, from newcomers Vinaite and Prince as well as the veteran Willem Dafoe as motel manager Bobby, set the film apart from many of the year’s releases, and a slew of awards nominations are the cast’s reward. Baker, meanwhile, approaches the characters and the story with a sensitivity and humour that make what could have been a thoroughly depressing couple of hours observing the wretched lives at the very fringes of US society a poignant, amusing and entertaining watch.

There’s a hint of cinema verite to Baker’s approach. The story is told in a hyper-realistic style, mostly through young Moonee’s eyes, that at points lulls you into thinking you’re watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary and the utterly convincing performances do nothing to dispel this myth – doubly impressive considering that many of the cast, including Vinaite herself, are first-time actors.

There may not be much money in Moonee’s world, but there’s a lot of love and a lot of laughter as she relies on her fertile imagination to drag her away from her impoverished existence, taking safaris among the stray animals of her neighbourhood and dreaming of visiting the real Magic Castle, so close to her physically, but a world away practically.

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Baker has a history of showing us sections of US society that don’t tend to receive much coverage in mainstream media, and The Florida Project is no exception. With an ending that leaves us unsure whether we’re watching reality, or another of Moonee’s daydreams, he’s not giving us any answers but the questions he asks about inequality and the US’s broken safety net are an end in themselves.

The film could be used as an educational tool for ­governments unconvinced of the importance of effective social support networks.