Best known for his 2015 Sundance sensation Tangerine (which was famously shot on an iPhone), Sean Baker has earned a deserved reputation as a subversive chronicler of America’s hidden underclass. And no film puts Baker’s empathetic eye and his country’s impoverished fringes into sharper focus than his latest slice-of-life masterpiece.
Set in a shabby, lavender-painted motel tucked just a few miles away from Disney World, The Florida Project paints a vivid portrait of a marginalized community trying to get by in the looming shadow of the garish fantasy that is the American Dream. Although the motel is meant for tourists on a budget, the majority of its guests are low-income transients in desperate need of roofs over their heads, living week to week, from paycheck to paycheck.
This side of homelessness is something that you’d never see on the news, and the shocking reality of the situation can be sobering. But unlike other filmmakers who emotionally condescend in their depiction of poverty, Baker refuses to manipulate you into pity or blame. Instead, his vérité approach immerses you into the summertime misadventures of the children who invent games and run amok through rundown parking lots and abandoned condos.
Eschewing a traditional three-act narrative structure, The Florida Project plays out as series of marvelous sketches, rejoicing in the innocent playfulness of kids who are just concerned with the joy of being alive. Led by the devilishly cute six year-old Moonee (played wonderfully by the precocious Brooklynn Prince), these kids are mischievous, fearless and defiantly bratty – finding never ending enchantment with the barest of means.
A bit like The Little Rascals meets François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the film lets you experience rapture and wonder through the capers of Mooney’s friends. But at the same time, Baker is nimble enough to punctuate each instance of childhood delight with glimpses of their parents’ harsh existence – displaying particular emphasis on Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker discovered on Instagram), Mooney’s petulant, carefree and morally questionable mother.
She’s a mess of contradictions, loving and fiercely protective, yet shocking negligent of responsibility. And while it may be tempting to simplify her as an unfit parent, the film’s compassionate portrait of her (and others) as complex human beings offers no judgement, only insight. Heartbreaking desperation and warm ebullience are vital parts of the same experience, and its this graceful balance that makes The Florida Project so richly engaging.
Amidst the sea of brilliant but raw newcomers, the one face you may recognize is Willem Dafoe, who gives one of the finest performances of his long and storied career here. He plays generous motel manager Bobby, who runs his establishment like an exhausted father and a de facto mayor. His kindness means that his jobs extends far beyond general upkeep, and Bobby’s unassuming decency is often the brightest spot of adult optimism here.
The finely observed details of The Florida Project’s bustling and vibrant community is an intimate cinematic miracle, iridescently glowing in humid air. Do yourselves a favour and watch this as soon as you can.