The Florida Project is warm, generous, and a remarkably assured follow up from Tangerine director Sean Baker. The film feels like an instant classic, one of the great films about youth and poverty in the lineage from Pather Panchali to American Honey.
The film centers on Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six year-old girl living with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) on the outskirts of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They live in the Magic Castle, a budget motel—$38/night—for confused tourists and transient residents unable to afford more permanent housing. Hailey and Moonee are extremely poor, a reality from which Halley offers her daughter few reprieves. Moonee often joins Hailey in her daily grind to keep them both afloat—selling perfume to sympathetic guests at nicer hotels, sneaking food from one of Halley’s friends who works at a nearby restaurant, and overall relying on the kindness of strangers to compensate for the fact that Halley can’t keep a steady job. Nevertheless, Moonee manages to find adventure and hijinks hidden behind the crude pastel walls of the Magic Castle. Despite the many looming dangers facing the precocious young girl and her small gang of friends around the motel, Moonee never loses her inner sense of innocence and wonder.
There are several grace notes that make The Florida Project one of the finest films of the year so far, and a welcome follow-up to Tangerine, director Sean Baker’s 2015 breakthrough. For one, The Florida Project is a proper film, shot on conventional 35mm film stock. While the fact that Baker shot Tangerine on an iPhone 5S camera became part of his calling card, the more conventional approach works for The Florida Project. The 35mm film brings added vibrancy and texture to the film’s pastel-streaked motel walls and Florida sunsets, and Baker’s direction conveys the sense of childhood innocence and wonder that Brooklynn Pierce carries so effortlessly as Moonee. On a considerably more ambitious scale, The Florida Project preserves the distinctive visual palette of Tangerine, and even returns to its digital guerrilla style for a memorable finale.
Willem Dafoe, one of the few recognizable actors in a largely non-professional cast, also elevates the film beyond its seeming indie movie trappings. Dafoe plays Bobby, the long-suffering, endlessly compassionate but also endlessly pragmatic manager of the Magic Castle. Dafoe is deceptively understated in the role, thanklessly handling all the chaos that seems to descend from his tenants without ever neglecting the fundamental decency at his core. Awards buzz has been building for Dafoe since the film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in May, and with good reason. Dafoe, who receives top billing in the cast despite playing a supporting role, provides a moral and structural center for the film’s often episodic storytelling.
Writers Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch are also carefully attuned to the procedural details of people trying to make a living under poverty. At every point, the film is sympathetic towards the difficult choices that some are forced to make in order to survive, including Halley’s decision to engage in sex work. To the outside world, Halley is clearly flawed for many reasons; she is impulsive, manipulative, bad with money, and she often drags her daughter into her own petty personal dramas. However, the film doesn’t look down at Halley’s choices, and her clear love for her daughter transcends the harrowing conditions they face in the film.
The Florida Project is certain to win many fans as it makes the festival rounds this awards season, and it will easily rank among the top films of the year.
The Florida Project will open in Philadelphia on October 20.