The underbelly of society is a topic not so often delved into in today’s cinematic climate. Or maybe, just not in the way Sean Baker prefers to dissect it. The Florida Project is Baker’s most recent paradigm-shifting work following his avant-garde hit Tangerine in 2015. Following a pair of transgender sex-working women in Hollywood, Tangerine explores a side of Los Angeles unfamiliar to most. Filmed solely through the lens of an iPhone camera, Tangerine is able to uniquely share their struggle in all it’s gritty glory. It’s in a similar scope that The Florida Project shines it’s own light on such a touchy subject—those living on the outskirts of acceptance, both socially and physically.
However, this time filmed in 35mm anamorphic film on a “conventional” camera, co-writer/director Sean Baker still opts for a focus on a similar demographic. In Tangerine, the characters traverse through the streets of Hollywood, the land where dreams come true and the famous live wealthy lives. The Florida Project is not so different in setting. The Magic Castle motel resides in throwing distance from the prestigious DisneyWorld resort, and it’s also where our protagonist Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) resides with her 22 year-old mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Glorified in her green hair, pierced lips, and tattooed thighs, Halley is only slightly more mature than her seven year-old daughter; they relate mostly in their indulgence for pestering with authority. Not unfamiliar with their hobby for rebellious acts is motel manager Bobby, excellently portrayed by the film’s only name-actor in Willem Dafoe, who remains stern and unwavering in his management but has a soft spot for the rambunctious Moonee. In a scene where Bobby attempts to coax Halley into reeling in her child, she turns to her daughter exclaiming: “I’ve failed as a mother Moonee, you’ve disgraced me” to which her daughter replies in equal sarcasm “Yeah mom you’re a disgrace.”
Moonee initially seems out of control and is introduced as having little respect for her elders (calling an elderly lady a “thot”, for example), but her characterization becomes more stabilized when we realize she’s just a reflection of her mother’s behavior. Baker has found a breakout star in Prince and she is outstandingly charming as the adorably precocious Moonee. She steals scenes when exclaiming “You’re not welcome!” to Bobby after he kicks them out of his lobby with a patronizing “Thank you”, and when she’s begging strangers for cash to buy ice cream, reasoning that “the doctor said we have asthma and we have to eat ice cream right away.” She lives a whimsical life that can’t be bored by anything. It’s cute to see how she’s sees the bright side in this milieu filled with lowlifes and outcasts, and Baker exemplifies that by telling the story through her eyes. With the aide of Alexis Zabe’s cinematography, we are invited to see the Magic Castle and it’s surrounding environment as Moonee sees it; and it is magical.
We stay with Prince’s Moonee as she joyfully plays with her dolls in her bathtub, to the background noise of Halley’s muffled trap music; as well as when Halley tells her that they’re going to have a bikini photoshoot. She sees Bobby as this disgruntled old man who doesn’t let her do what she wants, because she doesn’t understand responsibilities. Dafoe’s performance as Bobby is noteworthy because he understands Moonee. Him and Prince are remarkable together; he’s both strict and forgiving, like the father that Moonee—and most likely Halley as well—never had. He sees that she is a bright spark in this dim environment and he doesn’t want her to lose that incandescence. It’s the reason that he harps on Halley so much, because whether or not he agrees with her parenting he knows that she’s the only mother Moonee has. While it may be possible for Moonee to become to just like Halley even with her around, it’s much more probable for it to happen if she isn’t. Moreover, as Moonee lives on happily and carefree, we begin to realize that Halley’s questionable decisions as a mother have to begin stacking up. The lens with which we see this flawed world, through that of Moonee’s perspective, makes it seem like everything is fun and games, but at the same time it begs the question: when is this all going to come crashing down?
The reality of the world they live in is contrasted throughout the film by the brightness of the setting. The motel is a vibrant lavender, showcased in stunning 35mm anamorphic film. Just as well, Halley constantly plays party music and Moonee is always dancing. Even when they are on the border of being homeless and Halley is arguing with the manager of a neighboring motel over rent prices, Moonee is dancing along with the people on the lobby television. Her innocent positivity is what drives the story. In a relatively somber scene when a couple pulls up in a taxi for their honeymoon only to realize that it’s the wrong place (and that this motel is a dump), Moonee is excited because it invites something new and she seizes the moment. Her precocious observation for human emotions is also put on display when she notices the newlyweds faces: “I can always tell when adults are about to cry.” It’s moments like these, so poignant and visceral, that point to the beauty of Baker’s filmmaking.
Not unlike Tangerine, the plot of The Florida Project is relatively simple. In the former, a transgender woman seeks revenge on a man who wronged her. In the latter, a poor woman living in a motel with her daughter does what she can just to get by. It’s Baker’s techniques that allow such beauty and intrigue. To Moonee, these adults are just like any other adults and the things that happen to them seem normal to her. There’s a scene when she’s showing around her new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), to her wonderful Magic Castle, when they stop at a door and Moonee tells her “this man gets arrested a lot” as if nothing is wrong with that behavior. It’s this type of storytelling that is able to awaken us to such a lifestyle. These people exist. They have kids too, and this is the only world they know. It’s such the style of Baker’s that asks us to care about these lives because they’re just as real as ours.