Tangerine director Sean Baker’s follow up, The Florida Project, takes a different track than its predecessor. Last time out, he shot on an iPhone and followed transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. For his next trick, Baker and company shot on real 35mm film and the story revolves around a precocious six-year-old girl on summer break.
But at the same time, The Florida Project explores similar thematic territory. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch, who also co-wrote Tangerine, once again focus on characters pushed to the margins, outsiders struggling to survive without a safety net. These are people on the brink, walking a knife edge, finding family and community where they can—this is a place where flames engulfing an empty building serves a social event and reason to gather.
In Orlando, under the looming specter of Disney World, young Moonee (a phenomenal Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), live in a run-down motel, the bright purple Magic Kingdom. Over the course of a summer, The Florida Project tracks Moonee and her playmates as they roam the neighborhood, finding joy and mischief and danger and adventures of all stripes.
Baker juxtaposes the wide-eyed awe and innocence of youth with harsh realities, and dualities abound. Kids find magic and wonder in every crease—their flea-bag inns are castles, loose insulation in an abandoned condo is “ghost poop,” and looking at cows in a field counts as going on “safari.” Moonee’s childhood may be specific and grounded, but it’s also universal in other regards—like many of us, she knows every shortcut, can tell you at length what everyone in every room gets up to, and lives a carefree existence where everything is a playground.
One the other side of that, wondrous names like the Magic Castle and Future Land mask sad, drab truths. Halley and Moonee are always on the verge of being kicked out, ugly dangers lurk at the edges, and everyone exists on the precipice of disaster, whether they acknowledge it or not. Moonee and her friends may be cheery and lighthearted, but severe consequences swirl around them, which is where the film derives the bulk of its considerable tension. It’s both delightful and harrowing to watch these children run around unsupervised.
Transient and temporary, people fill the hotel rooms, form deep bonds, and move on, the bonds that much more intense for their momentary nature. People come and go; some stay a while, others just a night before they depart. And Willem Dafoe’s Bobby oversees it all.
The manager of the Magic Kingdom, Bobby serves as the de facto lord of the manor. Gruff and hard, his grizzled exterior disguises a tenderness and heart. He may threaten to expel Halley on a weekly basis, but he leaves the impression he never will, and he has endless patience for the trouble Moonee causes. Though he needs to be tough on occasion, he cares for the people around him—he talks tough, but repeatedly goes to bat for them.
Standing apart, watching, he’s still one of them, with his own trauma and wounds, even if they’re only hinted at in a few brief scenes with his son (Caleb Landry Jones). And Dafoe is stunning, funny and heartbreaking and humane, whether talking to a group of birds in the parking lot or urging a topless septuagenarian to cover up poolside. Compassionate and empathetic, we witness the lengths he goes to in order to care for Moonee and Halley, herself barely out of childhood. And even though there’s a personal connection and investment, the film implies this isn’t the first time he’s acted with such compassion, and probably won’t be the last. He’s going to be here long after everyone else jumps ship.
For everything I truly love about The Florida Project, here’s the greatest trick it pulls off: the kids aren’t annoying as shit. On a probably-too-personal note, I’m not a huge fan of kids in general, and that doubles when it comes to movies. And child actors, especially this young, and especially as important to the story as they are, present a major risk. This is Moonee’s movie, her story from her point of view, and she’s front-and-center 90% of the time, if not more.
The Florida Project sinks or swims with her, and Brooklynn Prince destroys. (Then again, she is a veteran of Robo-Dog: Airborne, so we all expected big things, right?) This is one of the most authentic, natural performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. She’s engaging and hilarious, mischievous and daring, and absolutely heart-rending as she grapples with hard truths. It’s a bold move to ask a six-year-old to carry a movie, but this one is more than up to the task.
Outside of a sprinkling of familiar faces, Baker populates the film with unknowns. Many make their on-screen debut in The Florida Project, and even more give the impression they’re not professional actors. Sometimes that approach doesn’t work, but here it gives the film another layer of off-kilter texture. Everyone fits perfectly, from those with larger parts, like Mela Murder, best known as a choreographer, who plays another mother and Magic Castle resident, to those who are little more than tiles on the background mosaic.
The decision to shoot on film also delivers dividends. Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe mix a fly-on-the-wall, verite aesthetic full of close ups and handheld cameras that place the viewer in the midst of the action with more traditionally staged and blocked scenes, to great effect. The medium captures the warmth of the wild Florida color palate, portraying the cheap, larger-than-life kitsch as things of striking beauty, showing the ugly as gorgeous.
Again, this parallels seeing things through the eyes of a child. Baker and Zabe often place the viewer low, behind Moonee, following her through her world. We see what she sees from her perspective and experience what she experiences. From her stance, the world appears one way, joyous and vibrant, while from a more removed angle, it’s a shambles full of tragedy and peril. And the visual component marries seamlessly with larger thematic and ideological concerns.
The only knock on The Florida Project is that is spools out too far near the end, building towards the climax only to plateau and stall. Well after it makes its point, it continues in the same vein, repeating beats and drawing out with little added value. It’s an awkward pacing hiccup in an otherwise smooth narrative. In the grand scheme, this is minor, but it does falter when it should move forward.
Sean Baker paints a picture of people barely holding, people society chooses not to protect; who are complex and damaged, but who look out for one another when no one else will. Real and raw, crushing and beautiful, and a scathing indictment of capitalism and a system that treats people as disposable, and The Florida Project eviscerates. It’s not always easy to watch—there’s a fine line between joy and terror—but it’s powerful and essential. [Grade: A]