The Florida Project review: Ode to childhood shines bright even as despair looms

The Florida Project ????????????
(MA15+) 111 minutes

One of the most memorable scenes of Sean Baker's raucous 2015 comedy Tangerine, set among the sex workers on Hollywood Boulevard, was a seemingly incongruous musical number. Everything slowed down for long enough to let us appreciate the lyrics of Victor Herbert's classic ballad Toyland, an elegy for the end of childhood: "Once you pass its borders, you can never return again."

Complete return may be impossible, but somewhere like this lost kingdom is the setting for Baker's follow-up, The Florida Project, a change of pace still recognisable as the work of a filmmaker with an ongoing project of his own.

A romantic with a taste for squalor, Baker is drawn to marginalised groups, but not in the spirit of a crusader for social justice. Rather, he's interested in how fantasy and the everyday are interwoven, and in how his characters shape imaginative lives for themselves. A film about children is a logical extension of this, since being a child means existing in a kind of alternate reality, doodling in the margins of whatever preoccupies adults.

As the title suggests, the setting is a housing project in Orlando, Florida. The six-year-old heroine Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the Magic Castle, a fancy name for a rundown mauve motel a stone's throw from Disney World: she and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are described by a neighbour as "the kids from the purple place".

Often Moonee is left to fend for herself, or is led astray by her loving but erratic mother (Bria Vinaite), a sometime stripper with blue-green hair and an anger-management problem who struggles to pay for food or rent. As a steadying influence, mother and daughter have only the building manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, one of the film's few professional actors), who initially comes off as a tyrant but emerges as a compassionate guy with troubles of his own, including a difficult relationship with his adult son (Caleb Landry Jones).

This is not the Florida of the tourist brochures, but the spirit of Disney haunts the film from afar. Baker portrays the neighbourhood as a Pop Art paradise, full of colourful signage and novelty architecture. Though he uses wide-angle lenses to convey a child's sense of scale, it's evident he didn't have to modify his locations significantly to achieve a bigger-than-life look: real-life landmarks are prominently featured, among them Orange World, the Orlando equivalent to Queensland's Big Pineapple.

The Magic Castle is also a real place, though on screen it recalls the kind of fantastical set you might see in a 1960s Jerry Lewis movie. It's even possible Baker drew some direct inspiration from Lewis' black-and-white masterpiece The Bellboy,which was shot on location in a more upmarket Florida hotel, and similarly proceeds as a string of disconnected comic vignettes.

In The Florida Project, what the vignettes mainly show is Moonee and her friends at play, racing around screaming, giggling, cursing and wreaking havoc. Some of these scenes feel so spontaneous they could be mistaken for documentary. It's an index of Baker's uncommon talent as a director, since he somehow maintains visual control even as he appears to let his young stars off the leash.

Baker's talent is also for having things both ways, shifting without strain between a knowing perspective and a naive one, moralising realism and joyful irresponsibility, a narrative with consequences and a commitment to the present tense. His approach skirts sentimentality but has a compensating toughness, and not only because it's clear Halley is headed for disaster.

Little Moonee is innocent in every sense that counts, and even her worst misdeeds are fuelled by excitement at the possibilities of life. Yet we can't help wondering how far she'll follow in the footsteps of her mother, especially as so much of what she and her friends get up to - begging for loose change, vandalising property, lying their way out of trouble - feels like direct rehearsal for the adult world so ominously at hand.

The Florida Project opens on December 21.

This story The Florida Project review: Ode to childhood shines bright even as despair looms first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.