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The Oscars are terrified of change, and The Florida Project proves it

By Sofie Smedsrud Mar 29, 2018
The Florida Project shows the other side of the American dream. Photo: REX

Moonee, a six-year-old girl, lives at a motel with her young mother who is living from paycheque to paycheque. She is one of the hundreds of hidden homeless living on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, out of sight from the billion-dollar tourism industry.

Moonee and her friends, with only highways separating them from Disney World, are growing up in the backyard of “the happiest place on earth”.

The Florida Project is a vibrant and powerful film that exposes the day-to-day struggles of poverty in America. It draws the viewer back to childhood, feeling as if you are standing on the sidewalk with Moonee, sweating in the hot and humid Florida sun, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

The Florida Project was praised at Cannes festival premiere in May last year but was, to the surprise of many, overlooked by the Oscars for a Best Picture nomination. The Academy is known for overlooking smaller-budget productions despite their quality.

My own calculations point to Dunkirk, with a price tag of $100m (£72m), as the safest bet for the winner of Best Picture this year. Its star-studded cast, foundation in real life (eight out of 13 Best Picture winners since 2004 have been based on true stories) and obsession with the Second World War (Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice and The Pianist all won Best Picture) makes it a clear winner.

The director of The Florida Project, Sean Baker, had a budget of only $2m (£1.4m) and it was shot on 35mm film over the course of a summer.

The most fascinating element of the film, is the casting of one of its leading roles. It is normal, and even necessary, to cast an A-list actor who can carry the movie and appeal to a mass audience. Moonee’s troubled mother, Halley, is played by 24-year-old Bria Vinaite from New York.

Baker stumbled across her profile on Instagram, and was instantly drawn in by her carefree attitude, lifestyle and self-deprecating humour. She had never acted a day in her life, but to him, she was Halley.

A couple of months after the director had sent a DM to her on Instagram, she found herself playing opposite the three-time Oscar nominee, Willem Defoe (Spider-Man, Antichrist, Platoon).

Defoe, the only recognised actor of the cast, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year. It seems it is only through an A-list actor that a low-budget story can be told.

The director is best known for his masterpiece Tangerine, filmed on an iPhone 5S, which follows a pair of transgender prostitutes over the course of Christmas Eve in a shady L.A. neighbourhood. The $100,000 (£72,000) budget film picked up a massive following after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

But Tangerine, like the Florida Project, did not get the credit it deserved and was overlooked by the Oscars.

The hidden homeless of Florida are not as glamorous as the fantasy film The Shape of Water, and not as nostalgic as the war epic Dunkirk.

The Florida Project is a bit too close to home in its depiction of our own backyards than we would rather see.

It takes a rare and brave direction that other mainstream films do not. It is living proof that the Academy only nominates Hollywood high-budget productions and will not recognise the independent masterpieces that represent the evolution of film.

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