The emotional power of Sean Baker’s new film The Florida Project is that it wins your heart so completely before it breaks it. Its 7-year-old star Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee, an irresistible ball of energy living with her ex-stripper mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a rundown motel called The Magic Castle on the outskirts of Disney World. It’s a glaringly ironic name for a place where the two barely scrape by, as Halley devises desperate ways to come up with the rent each week. At the same time, there is something achingly sincere to the description, as Moonee experiences every day in and around the motel as her own unkempt kingdom – an endless source of thrills, distractions, and escapades.
The film recalls Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) in the way it filters its precarious castaway world through the imagination of a 6-year-old girl. There is a similar vividness to its cinematography, which, in contrast to Baker’s iPhone-crafted Tangerine (2015), was shot on 35mm film. “There is something that film has that digital doesn’t,” the director said in his interview with Film Comment. “It’s that organic quality – something living and breathing in the celluloid. I wanted the audience to be living in and feeling Orlando, and I thought having this organic material would help that.” It was a brilliant choice. Every moment of The Florida Project possesses the tactile richness and color-infused intensity of a place magnified through a child’s perspective. The camera’s exhilarating movements are like those of an airborne kite, and as cinematographer Alexis Zabe tracks behind Moonee and her friends zipping through Disney World’s scraggly outskirts, we feel as though we are racing to keep up with them – in thrall to the artless transcendence of their adventures.
Nothing about Baker’s film, however, romanticizes its characters’ poverty. He took a thoroughly journalistic approach to The Florida Project, making trips to Orlando to interview motel residents and managers, hiring them as extras on the set, and soliciting their feedback on the screenplay. He also read news stories sent to him by co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch, who’d grown up close to the underbelly of Disney World and had first given Baker the idea to make a film about families living on the brink of homelessness in Orlando’s budget motels. Explaining his choice to pursue the subject and illuminate the struggles of the hidden homeless, Baker said, “I’m just responding to what I’m not seeing in U.S. cinema right now. There are filmmakers out there attempting it, but we don’t see the bigger studios doing it, and they’re the ones reaching a greater audience.” Sadly, he’s right. Only two widely-released films from last year took an in-depth look at poverty in the U.S.: Moonlight, also produced by the studio A24, and American Honey, made by British director Andrea Arnold.
In his effort to pull harsh social realities out of the shadows, Baker steers clear of simplistic moral messages. He could have made a villain out of any one of his characters – by casting motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) as an unforgiving tyrant, or Halley as an indifferent mother, or the social workers as the agents of an unwarranted system. But Baker knows that such explanations would amount to no more than a false catharsis, a black-and-white reading of a broken world.
Each of his characters is far more complex, and deeply human. Willem Dafoe nails the part of Bobby, a man torn between his urge to protect his tenants (particularly Moonee) and the realities of keeping his business afloat. And then there’s Halley’s polarizing presence. She’s a strong-willed hothead whose behavior and drug addiction pose a serious risk to her daughter, but she’s also a fighter who will do anything to keep a roof over Moonee’s head. Their bond is brought to life by two previously unknown actresses, Bria Vinaite (whom Baker found on Instagram) and the precocious Brooklynn Prince. Similar to last year’s Oscar winner Sing, The Florida Project is a testament to the untapped potential of using child actors and has spurred talk of a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Prince – who would be the youngest ever to receive one.
Given The Florida Project’s unique focus on children, it is not surprising that Baker mentioned The Little Rascals as one of his inspirations. Of course, the comedic streak of his own work is belied by much darker undercurrents that also elicit links to more sophisticated films, particularly those about people trying to survive on the edges of capitalism. In the vein of American Honey, Baker dissolves the moral line between financial desperation and dishonest schemes, as Halley sells overpriced perfumes and stolen Disney wristbands to avoid her only alternatives: prostitution or eviction. With the scenes of her and Moonee merrily hoarding items inside the 99-cent store with the money they conned off tourists – and of their neighborhood celebrating the incineration of an old derelict condo – The Florida Project also delivers a defiant commentary on the sinkhole of American capitalism that is similar to this year’s festival documentary Fraud.
But if any comparison holds the key to unlocking The Florida Project’s power, it is Beasts of the Southern Wild. Propelled by their young protagonists’ impulse to discover joy and meaning in the peripheral wastelands they inhabit, both are an ode to imagination as a double-edged sword of resilience and escape, and culminate in an implied dream sequence that builds to an aching emotional pitch. Just before Moonee takes her friend’s hand for one last Orlando excursion, Baker switches back to his signature iPhone aesthetic, infusing the moments that follow with the hyperreal brilliance inherent to digital. The final shot of the iconic Cinderella Castle behind them glitters like a vision before the screen goes black. It is in this moment that your heart will swell and then crack, as you watch Moonee retreat into fantasy, frantically trying to recover the only world she knows as home – The Magic Castle – before it’s wrenched from her grasp.