Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended the New York Film Festival and heard what seven-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince had to say about her breakthrough performance.
New York - Seven-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince is about to break a 43-year-old record. In the unlikely event that she does not claim the title of the youngest Oscar-winner on 4 March next year, it certainly won’t be long before she takes Tatum O’Neal’s place (for Paper Moon in 1974) in the history books. Prince stuns – in real life and on screen in Sean Baker’s debut and much buzzed about film, The Florida Project.
Prince is in nearly every scene, and when she isn’t she somehow still is. Though small, her performance is overwhelming, and so too her personality. After the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival, she bounces on stage, sits down next to veteran and highly acclaimed actor Willem Dafoe, and along with two of her equally young co-stars, proceeds to steal the show.
They are the best of friends Prince, Valeria Cotto (Jancey) and Christopher Rivera (Scooty) tell everyone. “We are friends forever. It’s true,” says Prince before launching into the story of how they met at the audition. Suddenly they all talk at once, saying they just knew they were going to be friends. The idea that they wouldn’t be, elicits a type of outrage exclusive to kids under the age of ten: Just how on earth could they be anything but? Don’t adults know anything? Ugh!
What these kids should know, Prince especially, is that this film has already irrevocably changed their lives. In Brooklynn Prince, a star is born.
A TINY BUDGET FILM
The Florida Project is a film made on the tiniest of budgets but with a lion’s roar. Real and alive. An arresting story about the ability of children to weather change and challenges, to accept it and adapt to it without complaint or questions. We follow six-year-old Moonee (Prince), her two best friends, Scooty and Jancey, as well as her struggling mother Halley (Bria Vinai in her very first role) over the course of a single summer at a budget hotel outside Disney World.
Their day-to-day at two motels only a skip, hop and jump away from each other is far from the bright and shiny fantasy-like life that Disneyland represents. The contrast between Moonee’s motel home at The Magic Castle and the Disney-life she’ll never have is painfully stark. The title re-enforces the near-yet-so-far reality: The Florida Project was what Walt Disney originally called the fun-filled theme park.
The hotel’s manager, Bobby, is played by Willem Dafoe (John Wick, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Platoon) in one of the best performances of his career. As much as the kids drive him crazy – in one scene they shut off the power of the entire hotel – he is quietly, with a stern face and furrowed brow, looking out for them, even fiercely protective.
Moonee, ignorant of the desperate lengths her mother goes to, to keep them afloat, lives her life as if she is in Disneyland. She’s mischievous and highly intelligent. She knows how and where to get free ice-cream, she has found the prettiest places hidden in between her harsh surroundings and she leads her friends on adventures full of laughter and childhood secrets. She has sticky fingers that grip your hand as she pulls you along, making it feel as if you are just spending a summer with three kids. But underneath there is a growing desperation.
'KIDS FIRST ACTORS SECOND'
Though Baker had a full screenplay, he encouraged the kids to improvise after the scenes that followed the script to a T was shot, saying that he was “blessed to have actors that have a gift for improvisation.” Dafoe, with a wry smile, interjects: “I love these kids, but Sean gave them a long leash, so I had to reign them in.” But, he adds, “they are kids first and actors second. These are their first roles (with the exception of Prince), so they have nothing to compare (this experience) to, but the freedom that Sean gave them is what all actors want.” Baker calls them “amazing.”
For Cotto the improvisation was more practical – they shot the film before she had learned to read. Baker, however, is known for choosing first-timers, and then letting these actors take the lead, like in Tangerine. Tangerine, shot on an iPhone, won a handful of awards and was filmed on a budget of only $100 000.
All three kids love Sean. We know this because they tell us. Over and over. “We like this movie because we love Sean.” And probably also because it’s how they found their best friends.
A South African release date for The Florida Project has yet to be confirmed.
(Photos: AP/Getty Images)