Director: Sean Baker
Stars: Bria Vinaite, Brooklynn Prince, Willem Dafoe
A couple of years back Sean Baker came to some people’s attention for Tangerine, a joyous Christmas movie that gained soundbite currency for being filmed wholly on an iPhone. This freestyling spirit was warmly embraced and was more than befitting for the movie’s “just go and fuckin’ do it” attitude. That it worked and worked as a professional piece of filmmaking is a testament to Baker’s proficiency at his art. Said art already has a firmly established aesthetic. The Florida Project comes emblazoned in the same typeface as Tangerine. But it’s beyond words. Baker aims to reflect the truth of the American poverty line through the eye of stylised fiction. His cinema is quickly becoming identifiable for its marginalised characters and its scorched combinations of pastel hues.
The Florida Project plays like a meeting point between JT LeRoy and the motel wilderness of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. This is no road movie though. Baker’s film takes place in an exceedingly specific location; on the Florida strip on the outskirts of Disney World. Here, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) lives week-to-week, residing in a bright pink motel with her precocious and largely unattended 6-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). We join Halley at something of a crossroads, having seemingly spurned all local sources of gainful employment. In order to pay her weekly bills, she resorts to favours and small-time scams, as often as not making Moonee an unwitting accomplice. At the motel, on-site manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) watches all this with paternal concern.
Dafoe takes lead credit for his star name, but this is really young Brooklynn Prince’s film. Baker elects to shoot the lion’s share of the picture from her height, if not exactly from her viewpoint. A great deal of the film’s first half documents Moonee’s misadventures with her friends from the motel and it’s across-the-way sister building Futureland. With her pals Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), she whiles away the summer days with a variety of activities that’ll make mild-manners parents blush; spitting on parked cars, scrounging for ice cream, even chaotic and destructive vandalism at a nearby row of vacant houses. Baker studies the kids from near ground level in a combination of scripted incidents and more simple off-the-cuff observations. Its repetitive, but so is life. He’s establishing routines.
Thus a thin but not insubstantial narrative is eked, but this is less about plot motivations as it is about understanding and experiencing a micro-climate in a pocket of America that most movies are rushing past. Moonee’s delinquency could be curtailed by her mother, but Halley is disinterested in strict parenting. One assumes she is raising Moonee how she wished she had been raised herself, but there may be even less thought to it than that. She curses and smokes in front of her daughter, but at no point does the film suggest she doesn’t love Moonee despite her frequent inattention. The judging of these people (of all ages) is left to the individual in the audience, who must try to decide whether they can excuse or approve of the choices made over these two hours. Certainly as Halley’s desperation moves her to turning tricks with her daughter in the bathroom, one comes to the extreme end of acceptable behaviour, but a call from social services leaves us conflicted. Do we want the pair separated? Despite what we know, how much intervention is necessary?
It’s not as easy to answer as you might think, and Baker doesn’t guide us to one answer or another. In the background, Dafoe (ever watchable) shines brighter than he has of late as the honestly decent Bobby. His watchful gaze over the children is warmly felt when he plays patrolman to a suspicious stranger lurking as they play. And as a small side note, whoever suggested casting Caleb Landry Jones as his son deserves a raise.
But it’s the female pairing of Vinaite and Prince who are the real stars here. All of the young children are great finds, and the film generates laughs and gasps of shock when we are left in their presence. While Vinaite brings a brash energy to her performance as Halley, a young woman hiding the precariousness of her situation with two middle fingers to the world.
Though it’s not overtly political, The Florida Project sits alongside the aforementioned American Honey as a window into Trump’s America from the vantage of the disadvantaged. What we find are people living just within their means who are not necessarily accustomed to helping themselves or acknowledging even the possibility of course correction because next to nothing in their surroundings offers a viable alternative. The film has no score, but the rushing of cars on the highway is such a frequent backdrop as to make the people we spend time with feel like safari exhibits, penned into a few blocks that the rest of the country is happy to keep them in. Baker doesn’t force this point, but it’s there in the reductive options confronting Halley as a single mother.
Largely presented as a leisurely observational piece (Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere sprang to mind), Baker ups the ante in the final act and, in the last few minutes, even cranks into overdrive, speeding up the action as Moonee and Yancey make a dash for a Goliath symbol of the American dream. It’s a desperate bit to find solace in fantasy, and the spirited act leaves the heart racing as Baker cuts to black. It’s only as the credits crawl and afterward as the whole sinks in that you come to reflect on the scenes that might follow which Baker has chosen to omit. The most heartbreaking material most likely happens here, outside of the film, when you realise that the American dream probably isn’t letting anyone else in.