While the motel-oriented Lady in the Water is set inside M. Night Shyamalan’s massive head, The Florida Project takes place in the real world, in an Orlando motel behind Disneyland. The drama uses this location to expose the economic disparity ignored in American society and pop culture. At the same time it never gets depressing, nor do its characters feel patronised or downtrodden. From the opening beats of Kool & the Gang’s ‘Celebration’, it’s clear that this is a film about life’s highs as well as its lows.
Light on incident but brimming with feeling, the picture has an open, airy quality, thanks to the sunny, colourful setting, Sean Baker’s free-flowing direction, partially improvised dialogue and wonderfully natural performances from Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince. She plays the six-year-old central character with a sense of humour and emotional range that belies her age. Some of her lines are reminiscent of Vine star Katie Ryan*, not to be confused with the nowhere-near-as-funny Katherine Ryan.
The film is told mostly from the kid’s point of view, giving it a sympathetic outlook that recalls the Swiss movie Sister, which revolved around a similar setting and relationship. The mother-daughter dynamics are believable and affectionate, and as the drama develops we start to see the consequences of getting between such a relationship. With warmth and humanity, the movie explores what it means to survive. And it involves more than just eating, although there’s plenty of that here too.
Though Disney’s empire continues to grow, The Florida Project demonstrates that they’ll never have a monopoly on cinematic joy, to say nothing of their irrelevance to real life. It’s one of those films that leaves you feeling as though you understand a bit more about people than you did before, even if America’s obsession with building swimming pools in car parks remains a mystery.
*I have since realised that Katie Ryan is the mum. The hilarious kid is Ava: