Writer/director Sean Baker does not make flashy films, but slowly unfolding, naturalistic narratives that’s revelations bloom for hours and days after you’ve first seen them. In 2015, he had critics raving over Tangerine, his heartwarming and at times hilarious breakout about a pair of trans sex workers. For his follow-up, Baker awes with his frank yet beautiful portrait of poverty-stricken Americans living in the shadow of The Happiest Place On Earth.
Set down the highway from Orlando’s Disney World, The Florida Project (2017) focuses on the people scraping by at a rundown motel called The Magic Castle. Painted an electric lavender and topped with a fiberglass tower, the place seems cheery from a distance. As Baker winds us through its beer can-littered halls and bedbug-infested rooms, we’re exposed to the squalor beneath its whimsical surface. Despite the tireless efforts of big-hearted manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), this place is a dump. But through the eyes of The Florida Project‘s pint-sized protagonist, 6-year-old latchkey kid Moonee, the Magic Castle isn’t just home, but a wonderland.
Brooklynn Prince makes her screen debut as the hyperactive little hellion who enjoys running past towering souvenir shops, spitting on tourists’ cars, taunting topless sunbathers, and flipping off the noisy helicopters that buzz her backyard on the daily. These activities might seem aggro, but for Moonee and her pals, it’s just summer fun. Baker introduces it as such, painting their story in dreamy pastels of pinks and purples, as if this were an enchanted fairy tale or a near-picture perfect postcard. Every day is an adventure for this scrappy princess, whether she’s begging for food at the back door of a dinner, conning tourists for ice cream money, or helping her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) sell black market goods. But as the summer wears on, Moonee’s childhood innocence of her sketchy surroundings is punctured by her mother’s increasingly dire reality.
In his indies, Baker looks beyond the stereotypes that Hollywood films offers. Trans women and sex workers who are most often employed as jokes and dead girls in mainstream fare are the heroes of Tangerine, owning its focus, empathy, and punch lines. With The Florida Project, Baker does the same for families living on the fringe of modern America. Covered in tattoos, barely covered in booty shorts, and often smoking up, Halley seems at first glance like a big red flag in her daughter’s life. While reckless, she deeply loves her daughter, always offering smiles, jokes, support, and whatever scraps of the American Dream she can wrangle for her little girl. They may be broke, but Moonee is surrounded by love, from her mother, neighbors, and even Bobby, the nagging father figure who is part protector, part plaything.
With Tangerine, Baker showed an incredible ability for not only casting non-actors in key roles, but also directing them to performances that feel startlingly alive yet authentic. As Prince babbles back and forth with her kid co-stars (Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, and Aiden Malik), their exchanges are at times silly, obnoxious, and vulnerable, yet never feel performed. And Vinaite is a discovery. Winding her slim body in pouts, playfulness, wrath, or seduction as needed, she is every inch the overgrown wild child. With her every crooked grin and impulsive outburst, we root for and worry for Halley, just as Bobby, this castle’s wearied sage, does.
Remarkably, it’s not jarring to have a face as recognizable as Dafoe’s in this mix. Perhaps it’s because he plays so against type here, veering hard away from the sneering villains and intimidating toughs that have become his niche. Bobby is a grizzly bear with a heart of gold. And the wrinkles etched across Dafoe’s face and neck, the wiry muscles faint through his threadbare t-shirt instantly tell a story of scores of summers along this sunny, relentless stretch of highway. In one scene, his worried countenance looks past his motel parking lot and off to the night sky. We can hear the booms of Disney World’s weekly fireworks display, but Baker keeps the frame on Bobby’s face. In it is reflected how we can be so close to something grand and magical, and yet so cruelly far away.
The more I reflect on The Florida Project, the more it opens itself up. Repeated bathtub scenes that once seemed indulgent, return with a slap-in-the-face importance. An elevator scene plays back with fresh weight. A sequence involving a soda can still makes my pulse race with its dark implications. With a willfully dissonant but divine ending, the fantastic film gently entreats you to look back on it as you have your own childhood, realizing the grown-up truths to which you were once lucky enough to be naïve. Which is all to say, Baker is a hell of a filmmaker whose making movies that are more than a cinematic experience, they’re a soul-shifting one. Profound, poetic, grimy and gorgeous, The Florida Project is a revelation.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com