Sean Baker’s latest exploration of gritty, street-level life is presented in a bright, sun-soaked package.
There’s a helicopter pad next to the garish, purple colored Magic Hotel near Disney World in Florida. During an impromptu picnic next to the hotel’s parking lot, a troubled young mother, Halley, and her precocious daughter, Moonee, take a moment to flip off the tourists who are presumably paying to get a bird’s eye view of the nearby Magic Kingdom.
Part character study, part portrait on modern poverty, The Florida Project is the latest film from Sean Baker, whose first feature film Tangerine took a similar look at LA’s trans sex worker demimonde. The Florida Project is a much less structured film, but it’s more ambitious in a lot of ways.
Whereas Tangerine was shot with an iPhone using unknown actors, Florida was shot on film and includes a bonafide movie star: Willem Dafoe. Thankfully, Dafoe does a good job blending in with the rest of the less well known actors as the hotel’s dutiful manager and de facto keeper of the peace.
The bulk of the film follows Moonee and her friends as they play in the run-down businesses and abandoned buildings nearby. Shot mostly at street level, the film does a good job showing us how a location as tragic as this roadside world can become a fantasyland for kids. Architectural curiosities like a castle-themed hotel and ice cream cone shaped restaurants take on a gingerbread house identity in a fake fairytale world that is designed for forced whimsy.
But, like fairy tales, evil likes to hide at the edges of this world and it often spills into the action like poison. Drugs, prostitution and child predators make frequent visits but the children remain oblivious as the adults try desperately to keep reality away from what should be a joyous time in the life of a child.
Lots of critics have singled out praise for the young actress playing Moonee, Brooklynn Prince, but I think Bria Vinaite is the real standout as Halley. It’s a testament to her craft that Vinaite is able to make Halley sympathetic given her less than stellar parenting skills. Roles like these are so often reduced to stereotypes, but Baker is careful to give us a variety of moments where Halley’s failure as a traditional parent actually provides her daughter a certain amount of joy in an otherwise troubled existence.
It’s not until the end that Moonee finally gets a taste of the fear and violence of adulthood and the moment rips through you like a knife. What follows is too magical and mysterious to spoil and I’m not entirely sure that the moment works, but I greatly admire the audacity and chutzpah it took on Baker’s part and it serves as a magical ending to what would otherwise be too brutal and real to tolerate.