It's easy to take innocence for granted. We all have memories of our childhoods, some happy some sad, but it's the in between moments that can fade into a general haze of nostalgia. Children see the world from a very different perspective, one of infinite possibility, boundless energy and wonder, and one divorced from the trials and tribulations of adulthood. All that matters is whether your friend can come out and play, even if you have to beg to strangers to get enough money to afford an ice cream cone that three of you have to share and then eat it inside until you spill some and get kicked out by the beleaguered manager of the motel you call home. It doesn’t matter how you got to be where you are or what’s being done to keep you there or improve your lot in life. The day to day is all that you can focus on.
With The Florida Project, director Sean Baker takes us to the front lines of childhood on the brink. Set at the garishly purple Magic Castle motel in Orlando, it follows six year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) as she spends her summer vacation causing all sorts of mischief with her friends while her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite) struggles to make ends meet, running scans and begging her way to her weekly rent. She’s constantly at odds with the motel’s exasperated but caring day manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who has a fatherly attitude toward the children, despite the litany of messes they inflict on the surrounding people that he is forced to clean up. And as Halley’s schemes get more and more brazen, she rouses the eye of the Department of Children and Families, threatening to further tear up her home by taking Moonee from her.
Moonee is the center of the film, and Prince is a revelation, so full of life and wit and naturalism as she bounds from place to place and idea to idea with little regard for what terror she leaves in her wake. The efficacy of The Florida Project is rested entirely on her shoulders, as while it’s a rather large ensemble, everything Baker is trying to tell us relies on having an innocent as a portal into this world. She doesn’t have a real sense of what it means to resell perfume and makeup with her mother outside high class hotels, or to stroll into the restaurant and act like they belong, charging the meal to a random room number. There’s an equal sort of authenticity to Vinaite, an Instagram personality turned first time actress who couldn’t be more of a natural if she tried. She has the look of someone on the fringes, covered in tattoos and neon hair color, the sort of style that’s going to make getting dependable employment somewhat difficult. She cares so much for her kid, and that’s so obvious from every moment she’s on screen, but she’s hanging on by a thread, undone by a self-destructive personality destined to keep security and stability at an arm’s length. It’s a hell of a performance, often quite ugly and hard to watch for its inevitable consequences, but devastatingly human all the same.
It’s a different sort of performance from Dafoe, the biggest name of the cast, whose craggy, caricatured face so often leads to him playing cartoons and villains (and, in the case of Spider-Man, a cartoon villain). He hasn’t had a real, meaty honest-to-goodness lead role in some time (since Antichrist, really, and that was not exactly created for public consumption), and he’s not a lead in The Florida Project, but it’s a nuanced, satisfying part that has plenty of shade for Dafoe to sink into. He’s a manager turned caretaker, the sort of person who can’t help but get tangled up in the lives of others.It seems likely he’ll get the most benefit out of any awards push, as people are more apt to vote for someone they know (and Dafoe’s never won an Academy Award), and he’s certainly deserving of praise as much as Prince and Vinaite are. It makes sense that Baker assembled an ensemble of predominantly unknown actors (Caleb Landry Jones is the only other recognizable face of substance); it adds to the authenticity of such a marginalized and forgotten slice of life that no one’s really recognizable.
The film shares the impressionistic style of Tangerine and Starlet, often placing the kids low in the frame, the vastness of the world (and Orlando's, let's say, interesting architectural landscapes) dwarfing them at every turn. It’s no coincidence that Disney World, a Mecca of childhood joy and imagination, casts a long shadow over the proceedings. Halley runs a scam reselling passes she stole from a John, and the kids constantly run by a second-hand Disney souvenir store. The glossy hope of it all is tantalizingly out of reach, shrouded by trees and fences, but the kids make their own fun. People come and go, which is to be expected from the transience of the population living at a pay-by-the-week motel, but Moonee perseveres. Much was made of Baker shooting the entirety of Tangerine on iPhones, and while The Florida Project was shot on 35 mm, it shares the same spirit of its predecessor. Sean Baker is becoming the filmmaker of record when it comes to achingly humanistic portrayals of the forgotten and discarded segments of America not designed to fit comfortably into the well-worn ruts that represent polite society. It’s easy to overlook these vulnerable populations, but, with the likes of a fantastic feature like The Florida Project, Baker makes sure you can’t.