The Florida Project is the latest of Sean Baker’s films about America’s new Gilded Age.
One of those rare moments at a film festival, that is for many the reason they go, happens when you stand up and leave the theater having just seen something everyone will be talking about in a few months. There’s a lot more to a premiere than that – watching something early is a chance to shape its narrative, and often to catch things that wouldn’t come your way otherwise – their popularity too fragile, their message misunderstood. Those are often my favorites – like watching Loveless for the first time this summer, or The Other Side of Hope a few days ago, which sadly but understandably will never make it to major American theaters. But a special kind of power comes from watching a rising star, and nothing has shone out to me so clearly as Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
There isn’t much risk to betting on Baker; his film is already scheduled for a nationwide release in select theaters this October after A24 purchased the film during its time at Cannes’ non-competitive Director’s Fortnight. (Other films from that selection now at New York Film Festival include The Rider and Let the Sunshine In). Indiewire called the film “the hot buy of Cannes,” and for many, it will be their first introduction to the director. But this is actually Baker’s latest attempt (along with writing partner Chris Bergoch) along similar lines to draw the nation’s attention, not just to him, but to one another.
In 2015, Baker made Tangerine, a film about transgender prostitutes on the fringes of Hollywood and their fight with poverty, pimps, and one another. An explosive story in its own right, the film also caught headlines when Baker revealed he shot it entirely on iPhone 5 cameras; the estimated budget was $100,00. Before that, Starlet (2012), was an early attempt to talk about the things that really interested Baker: deception, desperation, and the financial anxiety that come from living in the shadow of a commodified community.
The Florida Project is Baker’s latest attempt to draw the nation’s attention, not just to him, but to one another.
Now, his third airing of his grievances is his most potent and professional, Baker’s thesis about America’s moral and financial injustices. The Florida Project takes place on the premises of The Magic Castle, a cut-rate motel hidden on the outskirts of Disney World –the Disney Stratosphere, per se –as it is seen through the eyes of six-year-old Moonie (Brooklynn Prince).
Moonie is raised, or rather not raised by her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a laid-off stripper relying on hand-outs and dishonesty, perhaps the most irresponsible parent put to film in the past decade. Instead, the child spends most of her time with Scooty (Christopher Rivera) who lives exactly one floor down and is being raised by Halley’s best friend, equally young and yet definitely more adult. Moonie and Scooty play with trash, beg loose change for ice cream and spend most of their summer break bothering Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the motel manager who becomes something of a father figure to Halley and her child alike.
A parallel devolution of each of these relationships occurs over the course of the film, spilling out from Moonie’s perceptive yet exuberant gaze. Through her eyes is the only way to tell a story of such anguish with any redeeming quality, and we are reminded of the insular nature of childhood just through watching her accept and interact with this confined way of life. Like so many children who grow up in poverty, Moonie has very little idea that she’s poor. For the better part of the day, Moonie and Scooty have free reign over the parking lot of the motel and the strip malls and abandoned suburbs that surround it. Brooklynn Prince’s performance is often improvised and consistently outstanding – we almost fear the verisimilitude of the backwater Sean Baker imposes on us and the disturbing darkness that surrounds the pastel purple motel complex.
Not as documentarian as Chloe Zhao’s Rider, in which nearly every character plays themselves, Baker’s script is crafted on the claim of loose structure and extensive research. More than a simple slice of life, his work takes on the feeling of an inverted science experiment – the movie lasts as long as it will take for something to do severely wrong.
From this characters grow out of Moonie’s perspective and develop their own, and simple supporting roles turn into finely tuned performances. Defoe is at the top of his game playing the authority at Magic Castle, a role requiring such paternalism that neglect of his actual family begins to bleed through. So forgiving is he of Moonie’s orchestrated antics, and Halley’s reactive mishaps, that he soon becomes complicit in their felonies and burdened by their misfortunes. Unable to stop the inevitable collapse of Halley’s life – first and foremost her ability to pay rent – he instead takes control by preserving her daughter’s innocence, be it sheltering Moonie from Child Services investigations or escorting sex offenders off the property.
Baker’s work takes on the feeling of an inverted science experiment – the movie lasts as long as it will take for something to do severely wrong.
Unlike Tangerine, Baker shot on 35mm to give the movie a realistic feel and makes the place’s cheap novelty actually beautiful. Matched with the roundly stellar acting, there’s so little to be improved onscreen, and yet for a good part of my time in the theater, I dismissed the film as a beautiful car crash – offering little reason to watch the carnage except your inability to turn away.
Instead, the deeper argument of The Florida Project is set up when Sean Baker lets you forget that there’s the Magic Kingdom besides the decrepit one Moonie runs around in, only to gut-punch you with this thematic significance at the zenith of the film. It’s much subtler than making a movie shot in the back alleys of Hollywood with an iPhone camera because Moonie’s poverty is given a universal feel to it. But the fact that Baker puts her right under the nose of Walt Disney World eventually flourishes into a beratingly obvious commentary on class, inequality, and seemingly endless commodification. Mickey Mouse iconography haunts Moonie’s childhood like Big Brother in 1984, omnipresent and ubiquitous. It is both the perpetrator of her poverty and her greatest distraction from it, ultimately promising an anti-reality where the cocoon of childhood Moonie is constantly in danger of losing exists in perpetuity, a thing to be purchased.