If you want any astute insights into the making of The Florida Project, the joyous and heartbreaking film that is being touted as a serious Oscar contender, then I wouldn’t advise accompanying two of its 7-year-old stars, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto, out on an open-top bus tour of London. They'll be too concerned with heckling construction workers to offer many anecdotes.
But if you want to get an idea about how the young cast was capable of generating some of the most talked-about performances of the year, then it’s the ideal activity. As we make our way through the capital, they are every bit as ebullient as their onscreen personas, shouting “God save the Queen” at passers-by and squealing with excitement. It’s largely this insatiable energy that propels the first half of this superb new film forward at such a glorious pace.
The Florida Project follows 6-year-old Moonee (Prince) and her two friends Jancey (Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) as they run riot one summer around the $35-a-night motel Moonee lives in with her young mother Halley (beautifully played by newcomer Bria Vinaite).
The Magic Castle motel, painted a garish purple, is located in Kissimmee, Florida, a stone’s throw from Disney World. The kids are kind of aware that there is a glitzy fantasy land for children nearby that is unavailable to them (they boo visiting families flying in by helicopter) but their own abject poverty doesn’t bother them; they’re too busy throwing water balloons at tourists and putting dead fish in the communal pool. They don’t need money for their fun – they can always hoodwink a stranger into buying them ice cream. In one sweet scene, Moonee takes Jancey to look at some cows in a field. “See,” she proudly tells her friend, “I took you on a safari.”
But it’s a different story for the parents. Halley is trying to flog perfume outside hotel resorts in a bid to make rent and keep on the right side of the kind-hearted motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
And it’s Halley’s continual need to make ends meet that eventually elevates the film from a humorous, boisterous ride to a thoughtful, devastating piece of work. Critics are seemingly falling over themselves to give it five stars.
Quite rightly, the cast, in particular Brooklynn Prince, are being touted as award season contenders (the film is produced by the same company that made Moonlight and Room, two recent films whose actors took home Oscar statuettes). And so when the opportunity arises to take Brooklynn and Valeria out on a bus when they are in town for the London Film Festival, Refinery29 jumps at the chance.
They might be fresh off a flight from Orlando, where they both live, but the girls are a boundless ball of energy. They are full of questions and show an admirable knowledge of the royal family. “Where’s Buckingham Palace?” asks Valeria, while they both do the royal wave to shoppers from the side of the bus. “Oh I love Princess Kate,” says Brooklynn, excitedly. “She’s my favourite princess who’s alive. And Princess Diana.” I don’t have the heart to tell her about the events of August 1997 so I ask them which other Brits they like. “Emma Watson and Daisy Ridley,” they both squeal. It’s their first time in London and Brooklynn’s already sporting a Union Jack sweater.
The two met during auditions where they were introduced by Sean Baker, the director whose former credits include Tangerine, the acclaimed film following transgender sex workers in Los Angeles. Brooklynn and Valeria are clearly in the throes of one of those delightful friendships particular to young girls. They hold hands and whisper in each other’s ears and talk about all the things they want to do in London (“The fair! The zoo! I wanna eat loads!”). I make the mistake of telling them about Hamleys, which gets them so excited I’m afraid they’re going to fall off the side of the bus.
So how did the two of them bond? “We got on right away!” says Brooklynn. “It was easy.” Apparently a gymnastics contest was involved. Valeria carries on: “It wasn’t even hard to be friends in the movie because we just connected.”
It’s Brooklyn's second role and Valeria's debut; they both want to do more. “I love acting because everyone gets together as a family,” says Brooklynn. “And you get to meet new people, it’s really cool.” They clearly enjoyed their experience filming, except for when Baker switched the onscreen ice cream to sugar-free (“We were SO MAD!”).
The girls loved working with Willem Dafoe, who is getting some of the best reviews of his career for his performance as father-figure Bobby. “He was AMAZING,” they both say in unison. But really they’re more keen to tell me about the celebrities they’ve met. Brooklynn’s favourites so far include Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren and, somewhat curiously, Gary Oldman.
Brooklyn and Valeria are a joy to hang out with, two firecrackers who also display incredible kindness and curiosity. You can only imagine what they'll get up to on the (presumably many) red carpets they are about to step out on. And, like their unruly but irresistible characters, they can be a handful. The naughtiest thing they've ever done in real life? "Oh I used to love to draw on the walls," sighs Valeria, almost wistfully.
At one point we find ourselves in traffic next to another open-top tour bus and we’re parked right next to an American couple in their 60s. The girls immediately start waving and chatting to them. “Hey you guys visiting? Is that your boyfriend?” asks Valeria. “You should go see our movie The Florida Project!” The couple laughs at these precocious strangers. “It’s a very adult movie though, there’s cursing in it,” continues Brooklynn. Then Valeria pipes up: “And take tissues. You’re gonna need ‘em, girl.” By the way, that’s sage advice indeed.
The Florida Project is in UK cinemas from Friday 10th November.
Watch our short video of Brooklynn and Valeria's bus tour with Refinery29 UK: