The Florida Project (2017)
Let’s look on the bright side: in times of social turmoil, the art gets fucking good. The Florida Project delivers the kind of sweet pain that jolts us out of our ennui and makes us feel that tender gooeyness again – the stuff in deep-down places most adults have summarily destroyed.
Two adorable kids, a grape gum-coloured wall and Kool and the Gang’s Celebration gently ease us into this summer of sweet, humid boredom and relentless sun. The film is set in Kissimmee, Florida – a notorious wasteland of cheap and gaudy motels adjacent to Disney’s world-famous Magic Kingdom that once catered to the vacationing middle class and are now rooming houses for, what director Sean Baker calls, the “hidden homeless“. The film drops in on the Magic Castle Inn – a sticky-looking $39 dollar-a-night dump that houses transients who cling to precarious lodging like driftwood. Six-year-old Moonee (played by guileless little wonder Brooklynn Prince) and her pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) quickly prove that they are hardly cherubs – more like feral baby-grifters trying to pass the time with maximum fun at all costs. They spy, steal, destroy property and hustle tourists for ice cream to keep themselves occupied as their single mothers try to keep their precarious lives together.
While Scooty’s mother (Mela Murder) holds down a minimum wage gig at a diner, Moonee’s mum Hailey (Bria Vinaite) lazes around, gets high and barely scrapes by, paying the rent week-to-week. Discovered by the director on Instagram while selling cheeky, pot-friendly clothing and now starring in her first role ever, Vinaite is a revelation. Screeching off the screen like the amoral love-child of Courtney Love and Asia Argento, this inked up insta-star is pitch-perfect as the overgrown neglected child with a kid of her own. The chemistry between her and little Brooklyn are the wheels on this magic bus: it’s effortless and natural and it informs the veracity of everything else we see. Their benevolent pseudo-parent at the purple castle is Bobby, the lowly property manager, played by a remarkably tender Willem Dafoe. He’s a decent guy running a crappy motel who is constantly torn between doing his job and doing the “right thing” by the residents of the building. He wears his burden nobly – like a disheveled knight – and it’s wonderful to see Dafoe flexing his chops in a way we’ve never seen.
Much like Baker’s universally worshiped prior film Tangerine, The Florida Project plays like a verité character study and is not weighed down by escapist storytelling. He finds compelling moments in the mundane: when Bobby gets a round of applause for restoring the power in the building and his face lights up for the first time, or when Moonee and her mum go on a cheap trinket shopping spree in Walmart, it’s played like a decadent dream sequence. Like his cinematic hero Ken Loach , Baker is inspired to tell stories of the connections between “invisible people”. Working class folks who faces the highest possible human stakes every day: survival. His script is so loose and organic that it feels improvised in the best way. When Moonee and friends get into real trouble, it’s played with restraint and the complexity is drawn out. The dialogue is naturalistic and delivered without melodrama, like when Moonie witnesses a distressed woman checking into the motel and states plainly “She’s about to cry. I can always tell when adults are about to cry.” The most wrenching moment in the film sneaks up on you in the least dramatic way. As Baker repeatedly cuts to a shot of Moonie sweetly playing in the tub, you naturally wait for the scene to be interrupted by action. Oddly, it doesn’t happen and you are lulled into enjoying these sweet moments from the clueless perspective of this adorable kid. That’s when the shoe drops and (no spoilers) you figure out what’s happening with the adults. It’s the biggest cinematic gut-punch so far of 2017.
As far as I’m concerned, Sean Baker is reinvigorating American cinema. He adheres to the classic tenants of Italian neo-realism (telling socio-economic stories, using hard-done-by children as protagonists) but adds an astonishing visual language all his own that melds the urgency of documentary with disciplined formalism (locked off super wide shots, hyper-colour). One minute, we’re knee-height and handheld, chasing wild kids across a street, the next we’re looking at a perfectly composed wide-shot of the motel exterior doors, referencing Hitchcock’s Rear Window. So much care is given to the composition and content of these frames that it recalls the best of Todd Haynes or even the grandmaster Antonioni – using architecture and shapes and colour to obscure and reveal. Small moments like the futility of Dafoe blowing leaves in the run-down parking lot, the menacing chop-chop-chop of the police helicopter taking off nearby or Dafoe lighting a cigarette at the precise moment the lights turn on at the motel, making it – just for a second, beautiful – are the sui generis work of a master filmmaker. And then the cherry on top: Baker builds to a stressful and dark crescendo and then concocts a final coda that is so rogue, so wild and energizing, that you legitimately want to cheer.
Between his sensitive and searing portrait of this suburban groteseque and the gifted cast who inhabit characters with the resilience of grass that grows between the cracks of the pavement, this film deserves all the attention it’s going to get during Oscar season. Sean Baker is about to tip from scrappy indie filmmaker to a serious Hollywood contender and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does when the world is his oyster.