They line the main drags of beach towns across the country – gaudily painted motels, sporting rotten awnings and housing the threat of bed bugs. They’re havens for both those who’ve scraped enough together to take a trip during the dog days of summer, and others who unexpectedly found that that their reservations at better resorts were cancelled or double booked at the last minute. For some, these way stations are home – a cheap refuge when they can’t get approved for a traditional apartment building, their weekly rent scraped together through menial jobs, both legal and otherwise. This is the palace in which Sean Baker’s The Florida Project transpires; run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), a manager who might be a bit too idealized in demeanor, but whom we’d love to call “dad” when we never knew our own.
Baker wisely introduces us to his child protagonists – best friends Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) – before anyone else. Like his breakout indie masterwork, Tangerine, the writer/director’s working with a collection of non-actors and squarely placing us in their shoes, so that we can almost exclusively see the world through their eyes. Part of what makes The Florida Project so intoxicating right off the bat is its ability to deliver the joys of childhood, unfiltered to an almost elemental level. When Monee and Scooty run off to a neighboring motel, just so they can spit on one of its cars from the balcony, we dash along behind them, harboring not a single worry in the world. This is just one of those things you do when TV isn’t available and the sun is shining down on a gorgeous afternoon. Who needs Disney World? Though the owner of the vehicle gets fed up with our nonsense, we still gain a third partner-in-crime in her granddaughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). A new friend is one hell of a bonus, even if we have to paper towel our saliva off this ancient Accord.
Let’s get something out of the way before we go any further – The Florida Project is a movie about people living in poverty, but is in no way “poverty porn” (as some critics have already irresponsibly labeled it). To become pornography, Baker would have to glorify or relish his characters’ meager existences. Instead, he’s merely providing us with a slice of life, and all the wonder that can be found on a Wednesday afternoon when you don’t have a dollar to your name or elementary classes to attend. There’s no embellishment for effect, nor does Baker rub our noses in any sort of nastiness that we’d find in a lesser picture. No, The Florida Project instead acts as the chronicle of some oddly creative kids, who will toss a dead fish into a pool in hopes of bringing it back to life, or start blurting noises into an oscillating fan because they like the way it distorts their voices. If Baker’s exploiting anything, it’s the sense of discovery that comes along with a lack of experience, and how the mundane can suddenly become magical, if you let it.
Nevertheless, the reality of Monee and her friends’ financial situation slowly creeps in and ruins their days together, as Monee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) struggles to pay her rent, lamenting the days when stripping brought in the dollars a lot quicker. To try and make ends meet, she buys cheap perfume wholesale and hocks it in the parking lots of fancier hotels, hoping security doesn’t bust her for soliciting. Vinaite brings a lovely naturalism to the role that’s reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s work with discoveries like Sasha Lane (in last year’s outstanding American Honey). She’s sassy, but never obnoxious. Trashy, but still undeniably sexy. She’s a young woman feeling the encroaching unfairness of age; recognizing that these difficult years are putting miles on her already inked skin. But Halley’s never gonna let go of Monee – a fact that isn’t relayed to us through tearful speeches, or maudlin soundtrack cues. Rather, we learn about Halley’s devotion through her actions, a good person, who’s also most definitely a fuck up, but has love in her heart for the life she helped bring into this world.
But the true beating heart of The Florida Project is Dafoe, who turns in what may be the best performance in a career littered with remarkable turns. Bobby is a man who’s seen it all – a million Monees and Halleys and Scootys and Janceys. He’s recoated this pink shithole a dozen times; changed the busted ice machine with his reluctant apprentice (Caleb Landry Jones) possibly even more. He’s chased pederasts looking to prey on the property’s kids, smoked joints with the aging titty queens. Yet it never jaded the thankless manager, or made him lose sight of what’s most important about this run down, fleabag joint: the human beings that reside inside each one of its rooms. Try as he may, Bobby can’t help but look upon these youngsters with soft eyes, even when they spill vanilla ice cream on the office floor. He’s a gruff, caring papa to all these people, restoring power when it inexplicably shuts off, and giving them minor breaks on their due dates when they’re short on the rent. All the while, Dafoe channels this fully formed, wholly experienced man with an ear for gravel-voiced humanism. It’s a marvel to behold; the type of subtle work that won’t win Academy Awards, but instead further endears him to cinephiles that were already head over heels for the veteran character actor.
Any review of The Florida Project would be incomplete without mentioning how utterly gorgeous it is. Baker has traded in the iPhone trickery he used to make Tangerine such a supercharged slice of street life for the grainy texture of 35mm, which captures the working class splendor of the Sunshine State in all its faded glory. The set ups Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe (Post Tenebras Lux) devise create microcosmic tableaus that never let you forget that the true Magic Kingdom exists right down the road from this mostly forgotten place. The Florida Project is the product of a filmmaker who is very assured in both his identity and the stories he wants to tell, but who is also now being gifted the resources to truly flex his artistic muscles on screen. There are so many stunning shots you could just bask in, like the children do when they catch a rainbow forming over their ramshackle home. This is Hood Truffaut – a remarkable balance of impoverished awe.
When all’s said and done, the working class malaise that penetrates the peripheral of The Florida Project’s narrative finally creeps to the forefront, gathering all the love Baker’s built for his pint-sized central characters and dropping it off a cliff. The final moments of his latest are so utterly devastating that this writer’s screening audience were glued to their chairs through the credits, unable to fully fathom what they’d just endured. That’s part of the young auteur’s power – he recognizes the wonder and brutality of daily life without ever stretching either to the point of becoming overly sentimental or cruel. That’s a rare skill to display, and one that marks The Florida Project as being one of the absolute best motion pictures of 2017.