There’s this mistaken attitude that neo-realist films have to be drab and dingy: all of them set in grimy kitchens, and soot-stained bathtubs, and garbage-littered elevators. After all, the genre’s key classics are tales of woe, so packed with moss and mould that every frame looks like it needs to be drenched in a good dose of bleach – Mike Leigh’s Meantime, for example, is claustrophobically damp, and Francois Truffaut’s seminal The 400 Blows is crammed full of a small army of young children who look like they haven’t seen a bar of soap in literal years.

On that front, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is genuinely revolutionary – not just visually, but morally. Baker, the patron saint of the disenfranchised and the director of the woefully underrated Tangerine, a film shot entirely on an iPhone, understands that those who live in poverty are not uniformly dingy and drab. He understands the warmth of all life, and fervently rejects the cliched, creaky stance of those middle-class directors who seek to capture the lives of those less fortunate with all the tact and subtlety of documentary filmmakers heading out into a far-flung jungle.

So as a result of Baker’s tact and grace, the heroes of The Florida Project are not perpetually runny-nosed louts: they are stylish, funny, and fun; fun in a way usually reserved for dashing, upper-class heroes, or bougie young hipsters. Moonee (seven-year-old newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is the anarchic centre of The Florida Project; a joyous troublemaker, the film follows her as she wreaks gentle havoc around the purple-painted motel that she calls home, all the while watched over the venue’s soft-eyed manager Bobby Hicks (Willem Dafoe, in the performance of a lifetime.)

Like a version of Harmony Korine’s Gummo stripped of its cruelty and injected with significantly more heart, The Florida Project is a string of largely unconnected scenes; vignettes, held together by the loosest of bindings. And, although the arc of the film does bend towards tragedy – the final half an hour is genuinely upsetting – this is no stylised sob story. Baker has the lightest of touches, and his film rejects every cliché that it encounters.

As a result of Baker’s tact and grace, the heroes of The Florida Project are not perpetually runny-nosed louts: they are stylish, funny, and fun.

Not that The Florida Project is perfect, and Baker does, unfortunately, take one significant misstep along the way. The very final three minutes of the film suddenly and gratingly shifts gears, swapping film formats and tone to deliver a soppy ending that ruins much of the nuance that has proceeded it.

Oh well. Despite bungling its landing, there is still so much to admire here. In its startling originality, and in the sheer force of its vision, The Florida Project feels like the first film in a new lineage; a movie that gives of empathy the way tarmac gives off heat on a summer day.

The Florida Project is in Australian cinemas on Thursday December 21. For another review of one of our favourite films of the Summer, read our thoughts on Paddington 2.

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