Sean Baker shot one of the best films of 2015, Tangerine, on an iPhone. His follow-up, The Florida Project, was made somewhat more conventionally but it still has an outsider spirit and a rarely captured brand of humanity. It’s also one of the best films of 2017.
Following impoverished single-parent families living in a depressing strip of motels just outside, but a world beyond, Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the story it tells would typically skew towards oppressively sad or ridiculously twee. Instead, Baker and his incredible cast make a real mixture of desperation and humor, all of it genuine and affecting.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in the purple-stuccoed Magic Castle motel with her unruly, unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker discovered on Instagram). Because she has nothing, the jovial, precocious kid fills her unsupervised days with hijinks that include spitting from balconies and sweetly begging tourists to buy her and her friends ice cream. Halley, a combustible blend of misfortune and misguided, does what she can to make the weekly rent and pay for pizza, her activities growing more reckless. Theirs is but one of the stories unfolding in and around the Magic Castle, which is managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a serious yet compassionate overseer.
All the points of view mingle to paint a compelling tapestry. Moonee and her friends could be viewed as disrespectful little terrors, but they’re exploring and interacting with their world with an innocence that disregards the despair. There’s a joy in the mischief. Halley can’t get out of her own way, creating setbacks with her attitude, though her self-inflicted wounds are more understandable as we wallow in her day-to-day fight to provide. Bobby dutifully paints the shabby motel and monitors its grounds. His paternal instincts extend to helping the hard luck tenants, whether monetarily or chasing a creep away from playing kids. He’s got a backstory that may explain his desire to be fatherly, told efficiently but not too explicitly, in a couple of short interactions with his son.
Dafoe is an omnipresent but not overbearing figure, subtly expressing Bobby’s exasperation and empathy. He gives an easily endearing, awards-worthy performance. Prince doesn’t come across as a stereotypical cute, articulate scamp – maybe the vulgarities and misbehavior have something to do with it, but we can help from being charmed. Vinaite is fierce as Halley, dominating the screen with alternating episodes of boisterousness and icy resolve. She’s mesmerizing amid the chaos.
The world they inhabit provides a colorful backdrop, the kitschy strip malls and gently-themed motels eclectic and decidedly Floridian, the sunshine beating down on the pastel tackiness. Baker immerses us in the setting, following closely behind Moonee on her excursions or capturing the calm beauty of a sunset as Halley and kids hitchhike to catch a glimpse of Disney’s fireworks. The camera lingers on moments long enough to communicate the emotion without being obvious or overbearing. The series of vignettes have a cumulative effect that builds understanding and sympathy.
A fascinating look at lives lived on the fringe, The Florida Project is an enthralling, layered portrait that finds magic in the margins, while also communicating the pain of being stuck in them. In the film’s opening scene Moonee unapologetically and gleefully spits on a woman’s car. At first upset, the woman shares a smoke, and stories, with Halley as they watch the kids clean off the loogies. They laugh together because they instantly understand each other and their struggles. It may take us a little longer, but by the end of The Florida Project, we get it, too.