Monday, November 06, 2017

The Florida Project in Sight & Sound

On 15 November 15 1965, Walt Disney held a press conference to announce the commencement of 'The Florida Project'. Previously known as 'Project X', this top-secret plan had involved his company quietly purchasing 43 square miles of land in Orlando for the purpose of building his “city of the future”, which would later evolve into Walt Disney World. While Disney’s theme parks remain a fantasy destination for millions of tourists every year, the harsh economic realities of life in 21 st century America have seen many of the surrounding neighbourhoods fall into disrepair.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project takes place in the colourful but shabby Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, which is largely populated by residents living from week-to- week. These are the city’s hidden homeless; families who may technically have a roof over their heads, but who know that one missed rental payment could force them on to the streets. It’s a precarious situation, but Baker’s film possesses a bracing sense of humour and optimism, as we are aligned with the perspective of six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in The Magic Castle with her mother Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite, whom Baker discovered on Instagram). For Moonee and her young friends, living in the shadow of “The Happiest Place on Earth”, every day is an adventure, with their innocence and imagination keeping the bleakness of their poverty-stricken surroundings at bay.

In films such as Take Out (2004), Prince of Broadway (2008) and Tangerine (2015), Baker has been drawn to marginalised characters and communities, but we never feel that we are peering at his chosen subjects from a distance. A director driven by a genuine curiosity and empathy, he immerses us in the world of his characters and allows us to experience events from their point of view. The breakout success of Tangerine has afforded him a bigger budget for The Florida Project and the participation of established stars (Willem Dafoe is wonderful as motel manager Bobby), but he hasn’t abandoned the spirit of his micro-budget past. He still populates his films with first-time actors and he embraces the unexpected occurrences that come from working in a live environment; an approach that gives his films a distinctive, unpredictable energy. In fact, we conducted our interview in the same spirit, inviting Baker's partner Samantha Quan, the film's acting coach and associate producer, to join us when she entered the room halfway through our conversation, and to share her thoughts on working with this inexperienced cast.

Read the rest of my interview in the December 2017 issue of Sight & Sound