The Florida Project (DVD) – The joy of childhood against the odds

This is my review of The Florida Project [DVD].

Lively, precocious Moonee runs wild with her small group of friends around the cheap motels where they all live encircled by fast roads, wasteland, the garish colours of grotesque orange- and witch-shaped cafes, not to mention a noisy helicopter pad, all on the fringes of the Florida Walt Disney fantasy land. It is an ugly, urbanised, artificial but sun-drenched world, with occasional flashes of natural beauty in a sunset, or a group of birds.

As the children’s freewheeling mischief leads to more risky escapades, one fears for their safety. Moonee’s immature young mother Halley, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, often high on drugs, more than a little crazy as she swings between uninhibited self-expression and violent outbursts when thwarted, also arouses concerns for Moonee’s future. As Hailey resorts to petty crime to pay her rent, it is clear that the little girl’s carefree world cannot last much longer.

This film conveys a child’s sense of joy in living, curiosity over every new experience, the ability to be happy with very little. One can see that Moonee risks being ruined by a lack of boundaries, frequently insufferable, noisy, mouthy, defiant and destructive, yet also with a strong sense of justice, loyal and generous to friends, acutely aware of the world around her although often unable to make sense of it. The moments of bonding with the free-spirited Halley who is more like a big sister than a mother are quite moving. Although clearly “unfit” to be a parent, Halley loves her daughter – too immature and self-absorbed to see how she is neglecting Moonee, she does not appear to consider giving the child up as a solution to ease her penniless state, but rather, being a child at heart herself, she knows how to create on a shoestring (or by stolen means) the magical experiences Moonee will never forget like making wishes outdoors at midnight as fireworks explode over Disney World.

The acting is generally excellent, from the children, Halley’s long-suffering friend and some of the real-life police and social workers in the cast, to William Dafoe in the role of the harassed caretaker who develops a soft spot for the appealing child and feckless young mother. The performance in this role by Bria Vinaite, the much-tatooed free-spirited first-time actress,who certainly looks the part, is a little too frenetic and exaggerated at times, which began to grate on me. Although it is sometimes hard to grasp the American drawl, some amusing one-liners come through clearly and it is generally pretty clear what is going on, except I did not understand that the gaudy wristbands Hallee was trying to sell were valuable passes to Disney World. The pace drags somewhat with repetitive scenes in the middle, although this may be intentional to reflect the reality of a child’s life. Despite building up in the end to a dramatic climax with a director who knows when to stop – if a little fancifully -, the film would have benefitted from sharper editing.

Recommended overall for its mix of humour and pathos in a realistic portrayal of children’s resilience, ability to survive and live joyfully against the odds.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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