THE FLORIDA PROJECT ( Directed by Sean Baker, 115 minutes, U.S., 2017)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC With 2015 much-discussed indie hit Tangerine (forever remembered as “the film shot on an iPhone”) audiences began to catch up with New Jersey-born writer/director Sean Baker. Tangerine’s electrified storytelling, following a pair of audacious transgender streetwalkers as they hunt for one’s cheating boyfriend along the Hollywood strip, revealed Baker to be a director who could capture a rare naturalism that obscured his savvy plotting and instinct for drama that made his films transcend mere anthropological curiosity. Tangerine seemed to come out of nowhere but it was Baker’s fifth film, and merely the latest to create dramatic gold out the sparest of elements.
Now arrives Baker’s largest production to date, The Florida Project, further deepening the director’s interest in those living at the edges of the American Dream. It’s a wondrous world as seen through the eyes of the six year old Moonee (a star-making performance from little first-timer Brooklynn Prince) as she lives with her post-teen mother Hallee (another newcomer, Bria Vinaite who is downright feral in the role) in a kitschy purple motel called The Magic Castle. Despite Willem Defoe’s dogged upkeep, the motel is unmistakably a rundown dump, it seems like a cheap bootleg knock-off of Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, just one town over but a world away. To Moonee and her small posse of under-supervised friends, the empty lots, gaudy tourist stands and the eccentric gallery of motel guests open up endless opportunities for adventure but one can feel that the center can’t hold forever for these semi-destitute denizens of this decidedly non-magical kingdom.
Helicopters are constantly buzzing the humid skies overhead but Hallie is the opposite of what you’d call a “helicopter mom.” I’m sure there will be great discomfort from many modern parents watching Moonee and her friends (none seeming older than eight) as they wander between the motels on the strip and a little ice cream shop, and through fields, and into creeks, and everything we wouldn’t think twice about seeing in the Our Gang series (Baker has enjoyed pointing out the comparison). But Hallie, who lost her job stripping, is the sort of mom our society loves to excoriate, despite how hard we see her working hustling wholesale perfumes in more upscale hotel parking lots. Hallie’s vulnerability in this transient, rootless world gets increasingly difficult to witness although the children’s endless enthusiasm for the smallest things keep the gloom from settling in for as long as that can last.
In England and throughout Europe, some of their most prestigious filmmakers have spent years chronicling working class lives, from Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers. In the U.S., where beliefs that we’re a classless society die hard and that wealth equals character (how else can you explain our President, who seems impoverished in every moral virtue?) it is hard to think of any director who would be described as “The Poet of the Working Class.” The advance work and improvisation Baker encourages in his filmmaking process set his films noticeably closer to the real world, and not just an L.A. studio’s imagining of the real world. Baker also get closer to his characters, letting us see them as their beautiful and sometimes contradictory selves. It’s a fantastic galaxy we rarely see from U.S. directors, particularly fiction directors, and its as rich and as captivating as anything Marvel imagineers are dreaming up. The film is being positioned as the indie must-see of the season and The Florida Project is more than worthy of that status.