Sean Baker broke out as a name to watch after his last film, Tangerine, which followed the lives of transgender prostitutes and the closeted cab driver who interacts with them. That film, which was shot on an iPhone and featured no notable actors, was one of the strongest, funniest films of 2015. With his follow-up, The Florida Project, Baker’s production quality goes up, and he lands a bigger star in Willem Dafoe, but he also decides to utilize unknown actors again to tell a story about a part of the American population that’s normally not represented in media: children and their parents living paycheck to paycheck in hotels, barely making ends meet, in the shadow of what’s billed as the happiest place on Earth.
For six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), everyday life is an adventure. She runs around each day with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), having the sorts of fantasies one might expect from a group of young kids. They find ways to get ice cream and have adventures at nearby buildings. She even lives in a place that’s bright and boldly purple called “The Magic Castle.” What Moonee doesn’t realize is that the Magic Castle is a rundown hotel, and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) struggles to pay the rent each week. While searching for free food may be fun for Moonee, it’s also a necessity given their living situation. Halley’s job prospects are also dim, which leads her to search out illicit ways of making a living. Throughout the film, they’re observed by Bobby (Dafoe), the hotel manager who works hard to make the hotel as presentable as possible while keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends.
Baker sets the film largely from Moonee’s perspective, which makes the film far more engaging and full of life than it would be if told from Halley’s or even Bobby’s point of view. Baker makes terrific use of the Orlando landscape to create a unique world for Moonee, starting with the opening shot of Moonee sitting up against the bold purple Magic Castle. It’s an arresting shot that grabs your attention.
The film does move occasionally, though, to Halley and Bobby for what’s going on in their lives, and those moments ground the film and serve as a reminder that the reality of what’s going on around Moonee is much more harsh than she realizes. The contrast between these worlds builds over the course of the film, until they smash together in the final sequence of the film. The result is heartbreakingly beautiful.
As he did with Tangerine, Baker largely chose unknowns to fill the cast, and he strikes gold with Prince and Vinaite. Prince is every bit the precocious six-year-old needed to sell the fantasy of Moonee’s life, while Vinaite conveys the love and protectiveness Halley feels for Moonee while also clearly distracted by her own wants and needs. And as the veteran actor in a group of newbies, Willem Dafoe gives a performance I didn’t know he had in him: one that’s purely warm and kind, free of any sort of menace. Dafoe’s an excellent actor, and he’s terrific at being menacing, but this film made me realize just how much he’s been pigeonholed into that kind of role. It’s a revelation.
Once again, Sean Baker takes a part of society that normally doesn’t find itself represented well in media and tells a story that refuses to condemn them. Like Tangerine before it, The Florida Project is one of the most worthwhile film experiences to hit theaters this year. It’s definitely worth watching, preferably on the big screen, so the vividness of the imagery and the boldness of the storytelling can truly hit you.