Review: Sean Baker's Magical, Nearly Flawless 'The Florida Project'

I've got a lot of feelings about The Florida Project.

It's ironic that Sean Baker's new film, a followup to his buzzy IPhone-shot comedy Tangerine, opens with "Celebrate", one of the happiest themes you're ever going to hear. This isn't a happy film; for all of the awe, wonder, and childhood innocence Baker is able to craft, there is sadness lurking and sometimes it bubbles up to the surface. But it also wouldn't be fair to call this a sad or even a depressing movie. There are just as many moments of boundless joy to be found in what I think is one of the best movies of the year.

In a complete 180 from the kinetic, digital mayhem of Tangerine, Baker takes on a grounded, neo-realist style reminiscent of Andrea Arnold. Once again examining people on the fringes, Baker turns his attention to the hidden homeless, those living in long-term housing in the pastel-colored tourist traps of Orlando, Florida. The title refers to the original name given to Disney World during its development, and the setting of the film isn't too far away from the Magic Kingdom. At least not in miles. The only kingdom we need concern ourselves with is the one created by little Moonee (played by amazing newcomer Brooklynn Prince) in the area surrounding the colorful rundown hotel (it looks like something Wes Anderson constructed out of cake icing) she stays in with her mother, Halley (Instagram discovery Bria Vinaite). Life isn't great for young Moonee but she'd never know it; her summer is full of daily adventures with the other kids whose parents are stuck there trying to eke out a homestead. Most of the time the trouble Moonee causes is innocent fun. Go to the pool and stare at the lady who sunbathes naked, or trick adults into giving her enough money to score an ice cream cone. Sometimes it's a little more serious, and her mischief does real damage.

We see in Moonee a little too much of her mother. Halley is wild, untamed, and dangerous, with no real job to speak of. That makes coming up with the monthly rent (Which is about the cost of most mortgages) a grind, and one that isn't guaranteed to produce results. Occasionally she'll come away with a few extra dollars, which might mean a trip to the buffet so Moonee can stuff her face (that scene is so cute it's absolutely priceless). But mostly it's about doing what needs to be done to keep a roof over their heads, and that takes the film into some seriously dark places.

Choosing 35mm over digital this time, Baker spends the bulk of the film following Moonee and Halley, their big personalities enough to fill the spaces where a narrative would normally go. Honestly, this one played with my head a little bit, because for a while I worried it was too loose narratively to hold up. Mostly it's just following Moonee as she ventures off exploring with her friends. Those scenes are important, just as the amount of time we spend with her is crucial. To focus too much on the adults would be to make an entirely different, much bleaker film. As it stands, we see their various problems mostly from Moonee's perspective. She's a kid but she's not blind, she asks questions. Halley always has a ready answer, though, until the time comes that she doesn't. We know it's coming, and yet it's devastating. 

For a hotel called the Magic Castle, it's not really a place you want to be, and we can't help but find ourselves judging  Halley for putting Moonee in that situation. Your opinion of Halley will likely shift around the way mine did. She's reckless, clearly too young to be raising a child, and utterly irresponsible, and yet she does everything in her power for Moonee, so we cheer her on even when she does terrible stuff. A run-in with a neighbor, a former friend, ends in violence. And then there are the frequent encounters with Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the compassionate hotel manager, who she is always pushing to the limit.

While the performances of Prince and Vinaite are raw (the latter reminded me of Katie Jarvis from Fish Tank in its ferocity), it's Dafoe who is the balancing influence. People like Bobby are the real heroes in the world, and it's important for Baker's film to show that guys like him exist to lend a hand. He spends most of his time dealing with the little headaches, or "fires", caused by the residents. While he occasionally has to get tough, he also understands the situation these people are in. Nobody chooses to be at the Magic Castle, and Bobby is a human face they can turn to for help without reservation. It's the most unguarded, humane performance Dafoe has given in a long time and to see him in The Florida Project is to love him in it.

I've heard a lot of people calling The Florida Project "this year's Moonlight." Maybe, but I'm perfectly happy with it being this year's The Florida Project. There is no other film quite like it, this year or any other. It's funny still to think that the guy who created Greg the Bunny has become one of our most compassionate, humanist filmmakers, but he's in tune with the plight of those society would rather keep in shadow. Here's hoping he keeps shining that light on them, because that would be a real cause to celebrate.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5