Florida is one of the most disunited of the United States. It gathers a curious mix of retirees, gator wrestlers and Disney lovers, while the majority of its population remains sun burnt and on the poverty line, trapped on the outside looking in to its retirement villages and grandiose hotels. It has the most golf courses of any state, and the third most murders a year.
In light of this, and in the long shadow of the Magic Kingdom’s surprisingly diminutive plastic and fibreglass castle, comes The Florida Project. It isn't a serial killer police procedural set around the high octane world of luxury golf resorts – it’s actually much better than that, and also much better than its actual synopsis sounds.
The film is actually a summer long look into the life of a six-year-old girl living in a rundown motel on the outskirts of Orlando with her stripper mother. Her misadventures vary from spitting off balconies onto cars and begging for money to buy ice creams, to exploring and destroying the abandoned buildings nearby and selling knock-off perfume to tourists with her mom.
If all that sounds like a recipe for yet another cinematic sanctification of the demonised poor, the reality is much more entertaining and far less preachy. Everything just feels so disgustingly authentic, from the copyright-impinging (but not infringing) gift shops and restaurants, to the motel residents themselves and their seemingly improvised dialogue.
In a cast of mostly non-professionals, Willem Dafoe delivers a fantastically unassuming performance as motel manager Bobby, and there is a similarly pared down appearance by Caleb Landry Jones as his son, but the real star of the show is the constantly amusing Brooklynn Prince as Mooney. Even viewers with a low tolerance for the inanities of children will find it hard not to be charmed by her cheekiness.
Director Sean Baker gained international notoriety when his previous film Tangerine was filmed on an iPhone, but with the full cinematic equipment at his disposal here, he utilises the wide-angle lens and the big screen to its full potential while retaining Tangerine’s grimy realism.
It’s a surprisingly funny film, and in the end, overwhelmingly sad. The ending itself will either leave a bitter taste in your mouth, or be a welcome relief depending on how cynical you are, but either way it doesn't detract from what came before it.
Similar in tone to Andrea Arnold's American Honey, and a bizarre counterpoint to the surreptitiously filmed Disney World horror story Escape From Tomorrow, surely this is what Pier Paolo Pasolini would have been making in his neo-realist period if he had been born in Tallahassee. Perhaps.