Director: Sean Baker
Screenplay: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Runtime: 115 Minutes
Sean Baker is one of western cinema’s most exceptional humanist filmmakers. He’s experienced a slow swell of recognition for his ability to cast a sympathetic spotlight onto marginalised groups, atypical character dynamics and relationships and the struggles of individuals left behind by both the marketplace of capitalist America following the economic collapse of the 00s, and the contemporary cultural zeitgeist that would rather they not exist at all.
His work finally broke out in 2015 with the fantastic Tangarine; an energetic, of-the-moment and humane depiction of the daily lives and struggles of those in the transgender community in California. Shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, it was a leap forward for Baker and felt as immediate and fluid as any movie in the era of digital filmmaking.
The Florida Project on a sensory level feels a lot more mannered and classical in construction and presentation than his previous picture, but it once again tackles similar subjects matters by depicting a life on the fringes of society by those forgotten and swept under the patio of industrial gain and those still in pursuit of whatever the “American Dream” might still constitute of the in the 21st century.
The title of the film kind of speaks for itself; The Florida Project is decidedly non-plot driven and instead indulges in the distraction of free-spirited adventure and play by following a precocious little 6-year-old girl, Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince), throughout the summer both inside and out of the motel where she resides in an extended stay with her mother, Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite).
Everything about the film is an almost unparalleled joy to observe as we are drawn around the broken fantasy of the children’s environments. Large abandoned houses and open fields are playgrounds for these children in their curiosity, as the kitschy vendors and outlets like the ‘Orange World’ or gift shops roughly resemble those of colourful fantasy backdrops to their adventures. Baker’s technical work with 35mm film saturates the film stock with the sun-bleached colours of the state, that looks as light and sprightly as the pulsing urban music that blasts from Halley’s phone speakers.
The kids are a delight of squeals and childish laughter as they bond and joke together underneath stone staircases and collapsed trees. They are our guides through their own little world, and amongst the naturalistic performances of the fragile little balls of emotional energy Brooklynn Prince holds and commands attention even at such a young age.
The film isn’t one to close off the darker aspects of its world, as the parallel storyline concerning mother Halley takes many twists and turns as she parties her life away and scrapes by through means that are only glimpsed through the eyes of her unaware daughter, who idolises Halley like an older sister as opposed to that of a responsible adult who should know better. She’s fighting her own battle with the world around her and under the near-constant gaze of Willem Dafoe’s motel owner, Bobby Hicks.
Dafoe is having the best time playing his disenchanted but goodhearted father figure to the residents of the motel, and the children always feel safe from harm whilst he’s around as he chases off potential paedophiles and constantly defends the actions of Halley and tolerates the kids while handling his own offscreen family issues. He’s a down to earth presence who takes to caring and feeling for others as well as he does to politely asking a group of large birds to leave the premises – cinema is forever a weaker experience knowing nothing will ever match the offbeat hilarity of this interaction.
But Baker doesn’t wish to cast judgement on Halley’s behaviour so much as he wants to depict the kind of struggles that one might face on the fringes of society. The motel is located on the outskirts of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom park, as transients pass through but never seem to stop in the undesirable stretches of the more real Florida on their way to the fantasy. To spoil the final movement would be a crime, but the closing sequence of the film is similar to La La Land in which the fantasy of the imagined world beyond reach seems more satisfying than the final note that the story may inevitably end on.
Akin to an American Ken Loach, but as seen through the lens of a late Harmony Korine, The Florida Project feels like the feature that Sean Baker has been building to. But even then, this might not even be the peak of his work should he continue to escalate his abilities in this way. It’s a spectacular, hilarious and compassionate piece of cinema that feels and touches more than any more plot-driven exercise could hope for.