As if Tangerine hadn’t already done so, The Florida Project firmly establishes Sean Baker as one of the most exciting, inventive and fresh directors on the world stage. Hyperbole comes easy when discussing his craft, his seemingly infinite ability to draw out sublime performances from non-actors and veterans alike. It’s a style that’s more Italian neo-realist than lazy indie, resulting in works as profound as they are moving.
Baker’s latest could easily be some maudlin piece of poverty porn, situating his story as he does on the periphery of the theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Instead, he crafts a world that is in its own way a magical kingdom, where precociousness is weaponized and the struggles of single moms take place within an aubergine hotel-cum-rooming house filled with working poor. This is the underclass that the tourists drive by, occupying the vacancies left behind as newer places are built. Not quite homeless, not quite residents, they live in the grey zone of society, counting cash when they can and forming a complex ecosystem that’s like a coral reef of cacophony.
Seen through the eyes of a six-year-old, this land of broken ice machines and cluttered balconies is for them a familiar landscape. We meet Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) on whom much of the film rests, a foul mouth whippersnapper who along with her friends parades the grounds like a lioness. Her mom Haley (Bria Vinaite) is clearly the source of her brashness and filthy vocabulary, a sneering yet intensely compelling woman working week-to-week to care for her kid. There’s the affable caretaker (Willem Dafoe) who tries to keep everything running while keeping the enemies at bay.
Tangerine too had a kind of ecosystem at play, with each element contributing to a greater, synergistic whole. Even more so down in Florida, out of need comes cooperation, and when that trust breaks down the results are even more harrowing. Yes, the characters are boorish and obnoxious, yet their lack of restraint is completely in keeping with the environs, a rational irrationality brought about by what for them is a sad normalcy.
As the story unfolds and challenges inevitably arise, Baker’s gift is to neither toy with the audience nor provide mere cliché. Anger and fear come naturally, but so does laughter. When a fire is set there’s a sense that something has gone wrong, but the ramifications are in keeping with the general disorder. Running to hide in an office isn’t met with frustration, yet at the same time the hiding place is slyly revealed. There’s kindness at play just as there’s duplicity, each in the end looking out for their own.
It’s hardly breaking news that Dafoe is a hell of an actor, yet the quiet and dignified take showcased here is worthy of some serious awards contention. He’s stunningly pitch perfect in this role, even the way he hangs his shoulders or stands up to those making an incursion into his environment is pure cinema. One can see the world of Florida Project play out in animalistic ways – Dafoe as the grizzled lion with full mane, the wild cubs, the hunter females showing their pride within the pride – but this in no way diminishes the pure humanity on display. It’s easy to other-ize these individuals, to believe their experiences are so foreign as to be ignored, even within spitting distance of where millions go.
As sociology, this film is stellar; as a character piece it’s both warm and heartbreaking; and as social drama it’s purely effective with an ending that feels both tragic and deliriously cathartic. On level after level, floor after floor, The Florida Project is a remarkable, unforgettable triumph.