Sean Baker continues his tragically humanist examination of the lower rungs of society with his powerfully raw The Florida Project
It’s been two years since Sean Baker wowed indie audiences with his cinematically innovative darling, Tangerine. The Sundance-premiering film was not only entirely shot on an iPhone, it also shook up conventions by having a predominantly transgender cast. It was also a poignant examination of the fringes of society, one that surprised audiences, and even led to a heavy Oscar campaign by Magnolia Pictures to honor the powerful work put in by breakout stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. It was a red letter day, proving that Baker was not only willing to push for hypermodernity with his innovative high definition-pocket cinematography, but that he was also insistent on breaking casting conventions for the sake of the film’s integrity, all while creating a fun, invigorating, and touching comedy.
The Florida Project tells the story of Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her group of similarly precocious friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) as they do what children do best–find the fun in the most boring and asinine things around them. But while most children their ages would be playing with sand, toys, and soccer balls, these kids spend their days with no real adult supervision, running through abandoned houses, spitting on cars, and generally creating havoc. Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Viniate) is in the picture, but she spends most of her days lounging around, smoking blunts, and finding get-rich-quick schemes to scrounge up next week’s rent. So there’s little time to look after Moonee and her friends, save for being accomplices in Halley’s generally harmless crimes.
But despite these circumstances, these are not bad kids. On the contrary, while they may be rambunctious and chaotic, they are sweet, nurturing, loving, friendly, charming, and funny. They are simply the product of their environment, a roadside motel called The Magic Castle, run by the stern yet friendly manager-cum-security guard-cum-electrician-cum-handyman Bobby (played with earnest conviction by Willem Dafoe). It seems that these children–who in his eyes are a (charming) nuisance–are the only respite that the aging manager has in his daily onslaught of less-than-savory jobs. They are the only conduit that this purple-drenched motel has to the Disney World that hangs over them.
It is here at The Magic Castle, under a façade of pastels, dreams, warm weather and the literal backdrop of Disney World, that these fringe characters exist, living a very different life to the one advertised on TV. These are the individuals who exist in a world of forgotten dreams, unfulfilled aspirations and (ironically) a lack of imagination. It’s both upsetting and thought-provoking, for even as these individuals partake in questionable activities on a daily basis, they are endearing, charitable, and caring. They may lack grace and poise, but what more than make up for it with their tenacity, honesty, and drive.
And yet the endearing qualities of Halley, Moonee, and her friends shine through, for these are people are are making due with what they have–pretty much nothing. They scheme, grift, and cheat their way through life, making money wherever they can, not reflecting for a moment the potential consequences that lay ahead. It’s a wondrous characterization from Baker, who yet again showcases a deep sense of humanity in these characters that most would only glance at on their way to Space Mountain.
And while The Florida Project may not be as groundbreaking as Tangerine proved to be, it is a cinematic feat on its own rights. Baker has graduated-of sorts from iPhone camerawork to conventional cinematography, with discernible tinges of handheld shots sprinkled in, as if to remind us that this might as well have been filmed on the same sort of DIY equipment. It’s a refreshing decision, one that makes seeing the recognizable faces of Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones seem that much more fitting. Coupled with Baker’s reliance on low angle, long take pans and humanistic long take tracking shots, The Florida Project is a deeply caring film. It works tirelessly to demonstrate a modernist aesthetic and characterization, while also showing the drudgery of day-to-day life at The Magic Castle.
This is also in part to Baker’s continued reliance on nonprofessional actors to dramatize his narratives. But this time, Baker has instead shifted his focus from nonprofessional transgender actors to first-time child actors. It’s a daring leap that requires a great deal of trust, patience, and directorial experience. But thankfully, Baker pulls it off, finding wondrous performances from Prince, Cotto, and Rivera. Their ebullient nature, strong convictions, and never-ending camaraderie makes for a mesmerizing examination of a child’s precocious wonderment in the face of never-ending precariousness.
But beyond the adept acting from the kids is the spellbinding work from newcomer Bria Vinaite who holds her own with veteran Willem Dafoe during their oft-shared screen time. From her brazen attitude to her vitriolic backlash at a neighbor and friend’s judgmental views, Vinaite naturally embodies the sentiment, look, and thoughts of the wayward Halley. Vinaite proves to be a useful anchor for the ongoing narrative oscillation between the childlike wonderment of her daughter and and the instability of her own adulthood. Her descend further into the fringes is adeptly captured through the eyes of her daughter, Moonee, who can all but sing, dance, and play along as she slowly but surely endangers their chances of staying together and out of the hands of Child Protection Services (CPS). It’s a heart-rending journey, one that lends itself to the idea that Baker has yet another resounding success on his hands with his expertly captured fifth-feature film, The Florida Project.
The Florida Project is slated to open in the US October 6. We screened it at the New York Film Festival.