Sean Baker makes the kind of movies that I love. Hugely colorful films that tell stories of people that Hollywood tends to ignore. Stories about real people that fate has placed on the fringes. He tells these stories humanely, without judgement and without trying to unpack how these people got there. He simply tells the story and puts that story on the screen with color, humor and heartbreak. His previous film Tangerine about trans hustlers on the streets of Los Angeles, a movie which was shot on entirely on IPhone was magnificent. The Florida Project has many of the same elements, and while it’s not quite as engaging as Tangerine, it is still a remarkable motion picture.
If you have been to the Orlando-Kissimmee Florida area, just outside of Disneyworld, in the past twenty years or so you will recognize the world, just on the outskirts of the “happiest place on earth”, where the characters of The Florida Project live. Miles of half occupied strip malls, countless pawn shop and garishly colored cheap motels. Motels that from time to time feature drug dealing, violence and prostitution. It’s these motels that the characters of this movie call home.
At the center of this movie is a little girl named Moonee, played with so much charm by Brooklynn Prince. Moonie and the other kids of the motel, and there are a bunch of them, are free-range kids who wander the grounds of the motel and neighboring properties getting into mischief and defying adults, when there are any adults. They spit on cars for fun, shut off the power to the facility and generally do whatever they want to do, and that includes getting in the hair (and under the desk) of hotel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).
Moonee lives in one of the hotel rooms of the Magic Castle Hotel with her down and out young mother Hallee, played by amazing newcomer Bria Vinaite. Hallee is scraping for money after losing her job as a “dancer”, she has trouble making the rent for the dingy room she shares with Moonee. Hallee loves her daughter but just can’t seem to get her life together. She is angry, defiant and in one instance lets her anger get the better of her and beats up another motel tenant. Hallee tries to provide for her daughter as best she can. Vinaite plays the role with a tightrope walkers precision. On one side are the financial hardships and the ensuing emotional damage, on the other side is the amazing humanity she brings to the role. She is doing exactly zero right things in her life, but she is sympathetic and you can’t help but be hoping for deliverance for her and her daughter.
It would be easy to just label these kids as bad kids or brats, given their occasionally foul language and constantly mischievous nature, but it becomes clear that the kids are good at heart, if not in deed. Moonee is sweet natured, dedicated to her wayward mother and the kids are loyal to one another. These kids are just unsupervised and left to their own devices without the benefit of parents who model good decision making. You never have a reaction that repulses you or makes you write these kids off as “bad kids”.
In worlds like these, people like Hallee, Moonee and all the others need a guardian angel, someone to be looking out for their best interests when they clearly are not equipped to do so. Bobby is that for these people, especially they children. Bobby truly cares for these people and he may be the only one. The motel has a “no long term tenants” policy but Bobby looks for ways around the rules to help take care of these people. He intervenes with police and other authorities on their behalf and enforces rules meant for the well being of everyone.
There is a scene midway in the film that illustrates Bobby’s role as guardian angel, in it the kids are playing on the picnic tables outside the motel when an elderly pedophile shows up and starts talking to the kids who are hanging out without another adult in sight. Bobby gets the guy away and makes it clear he’s not to come back.
The role could only be played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe brings with him a certain world weary energy coupled with a deep desire to protect his charges. We never learn much about his life outside the motel, we see only his duty to the upkeep of the facility, and his self assumed duty to act as protector to the people living there. Dafoe wears his concern for everyone’s wellbeing on his face as he manages crises big and small.
The ending of the film will take your breath away.
Sean Baker’s brand of guerilla filmmaking is wonderful, his attention to color in The Florida Project gives the movie a kind of hyper dreamy quality, if you have seen Tangerine you already know what I mean. The film was shot on location in the real life motels outside of Disneyworld in Kissimmee, many of the extras are residents of these motels.
He lets us see the world through the eyes of children, with the constant joy of discovery and adventure in discovering even the most mundane things, and he shows us the world through the eyes of adults, who have been disappointed when the wonder stops and adulthood intrudes.
I am disappointed that The Florida Project didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination because it certainly deserved to at least be nominated, it is one of the year’s best.
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