Published on November 10th, 2017 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Florida Project
Sean Baker, director of Tangerine, has made another cinematic masterpiece with The Florida Project, a story of poverty in the shadow of Disney World.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine was my favourite film of 2015, inhabiting the world of transgender prostitution in Hollywood on Christmas Eve. Famously shot on iPhones, but without a hint of gimmickry, the film captures some screwball adventures in this rough world, against the cinematic backdrop of beautiful, sunny California. After Tangerine, Baker could have served up almost anything and I’d have run to the theatre to see it. His new film, The Florida Project, does not disappoint.
The Florida Project takes its moniker from what Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando was being referred to as while it was being built. In the film, we see the lives of the people that live at the foot of the Magic Kingdom, along the strip of tourist traps, cheap motels, and Disney clearance stores. We follow several characters, but mostly Moonee, a precocious little girl who lives at the ironically named Magic Castle Motel with her mother, Halley. Unable to secure a fixed address, they are long-term hotel residents living in poverty, technically homeless, in the shadow of the happiest place on Earth.
If Tangerine was all golden skies and glistening skin, The Florida Project shows us colourful buildings seen from the highway strip. They look more and more dilapidated as you get close up. Also like Tangerine, this is a view of America that we know is there, but don’t often see — hustlers working scams, tourists sneaking away from their families to get a quick blowjob, and kids in ill-fitting Disney outlet clothes running through the midst of it.
Even in this swampy milieu, with a young mother who is really more like a sister, we recognize a near universal experience of childhood through Moonee’s eyes. She is loveable, but also the instigator of a lot of hijinks, coming up with shenanigans that get the kids in trouble. She’s always calling the shots, a ringleader, telling them to keep quiet about whatever caper they’ve just pulled so the adults don’t find out. Sean Baker is a huge Little Rascals fan, and Moonee is the Spanky of the gang. Working with children is notoriously hard, and while you can tell that a lot of this was ad libbed, it was also well rehearsed with their acting coach. The kids really sell it.
Speaking of acting, someone please just send Willem Dafoe his Oscar. Dafoe plays Bobby, the manager of the motel complex. He’s tasked with keeping that colourful paint fresh, policing the booze and nudity rules at the pool, and extracting the rent from people like Halley. The damage in his family and background is hinted at, giving him a note of sadness, but he’s also the optimistic, good-hearted, pulsating soul of the film.
On paper, this sounds like a bit of a cheesy character that lacks conflict. Shouldn’t the landlord be a bit greasy or prone to anger or something that injects more drama into the story? Nope. In this case, anyway, Baker’s favouring of story snapshots over a forced narrative works in tandem with Dafoe’s brilliantly subtle performance. This is the strongest Dafoe performance that I can think of, and almost because he’s playing against what we normally think of him as. He hasn’t exuded this much humanity since he was Sgt. Elias in Platoon. Most people dismiss these motel dwellers as human garbage, but Bobby takes care of the ragtag family, always calm, patient, accepting, and respectful. The fatherhood he longs for with his son (Caleb Landry Jones) is what he quietly gives to the people at the motel.
It’s also worth noting that the actress that plays Halley, Bria Vinaite, was an unknown that Baker discovered on Instagram. She brings not only vitality to the role, but a tragic realism. Aside from the fact that I’d never heard of her, I wouldn’t have guessed that she had zero experience. She plays vulnerable well, so you can empathize with her, but she’s also so convincingly immature at times that you have to shake your head at her.
The Florida Project will no doubt beg comparisons to movies like Gummo and Kids, which makes total sense. But I think it transcends both of those movies, perhaps even leaning into the territory of something like the neo-realist Bicycle Thieves, where levity is used to great effect. Baker (again, as in Tangerine) paints a stark, realistic picture of this world, but also imbues it with humour and colour, love and humanity.