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The Florida Project

Year: 2017
Production Co: Cre Film
Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Sean Baker/Chris Bergoch
Cast: Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe

Unlike network TV and the print media news, movies have always had a left-leaning and socialist bent, and this looked like another champion of the underprivileged and marginalised the way Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and other screen stories with progressive themes (LBGTQ, poverty, race, etc) have been.

But the way The Florida Project unfolded made me wonder if director Sean Baker was playing a big Republican trick on everyone. His first film, Tangerine, took the indie world by storm with its portrayal of two transgender prostitutes trying to navigate street life in LA on Christmas Eve, and it seemed as politically liberal as a piece of art could possibly get.

On the surface The Florida Project looks the same. It's the story of a series of families who live barely above the breadline in a gaudy and cheap motel in the shadow of Orlando's theme parks. The prism we see their plight through it precocious Moonee (Brooklyn Price), spending her days running riot through the motel and surrounds with her young friends, causing grief for the adults like her carer Halley (Bria Vinaite) and the long suffering hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

When we meet Moonee, she's challenging the young boy she hangs out with most of the time to a spitting contest over the motel balcony onto the car windshield of a neighbour. When the woman discovers what the kids are doing and comes out to yell at them they hightail it across the grasslands, strip malls, housing estates and other landscapes that hug the tourism mecca nearby.

But consequences aren't much of a concern to Moonee, and when the woman goes to complain about her to Halley (who's relationship to the little girl is never really explained – is she her natural mother, an older sister or something else?) Moonee just makes friends with the woman's own little girl, recruiting her to the gang of tearaways that make their own fun in the summer humidity.

Narratively there's not a lot in The Florida Project to keep you riveted. Rather than a specific story as such, Baker seems more interested in just presenting you with a slice of life, much like Tangerine did for its characters.

Bobby and a young cohort who's never really explained (Caleb Landry Jones) struggle to get a new ice machine into the goods lift. Bobby sees off an old man near the property who seems to be a kiddy fiddler. Halley and Moonee panhandle outside a nearby resort until they get caught and sent away, accosting guests to buy perfume, Disney tickets and other stuff that's not obtained by entirely honest means. Moonee visits the diner workplace of her friend's mother, who sneaks pancakes out the back door for her and Halley. They hang around the ice scream stand begging for change until they can afford some ice cream.

A lot of it consists of vignettes just showing you how these people live, less a story and more an evocative still life painting. It's wonderfully shot and acted, and Baker manages the same clever sleight of hand with the point of view that made What Maisie Knew and Room so great – showing us stuff we as the audience understand, but doing so entirely through the eyes of Moonee and her friends. It has a drifting quality, making you spend at least some of the time waiting for a story to coalesce out of the scenery.

But it eventually does somewhere, and that's what made me wonder about the true politics behind it. Halley, despite the fun and love she shows the girl (they dance in the rain, sit in a nearby field where they watch the Disney fireworks nearby, get dressed in swimsuits to take selfies) does something stupid and irresponsible every time the script gives her the chance to do the right thing according to her means.

I won't reveal what actually happens to Halley and Moonee here – it's the only real story element that matters – but the character of Halley seems to embody the very right wing outlook that the poor deserve their fate because they're lazy and opportunistic, not smart, moral or principled enough to make it in decent society.

During the emotionally wrenching climax when Halley's actions are too little too late, I could imagine any tax cut-loving, country club-attending, dyed in the wool Trump or George W Bush voter (not that someone of that persuasion would probably see an independent drama like this in a pink fit) nodding with satisfaction because she's only getting what she deserves, and the poor kid is suffering because of it.

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