The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s follow-up to his breakout hit Tangerine — a film that followed two transgender sex-workers with, what many claimed, a hitherto unforeseen authenticity. Baker’s modus operandi for some time now has been attempting to achieve new cinematic heights by ‘documenting’ lives of people not often shown on the silver screen. This has been apparent ever since his first feature, Take Out — a day in the life of Chinese immigrant delivery man.
However, Sean Baker is himself a college educated white man. His works are largely seen only on the festival circuit. Concerns easily mount as to how authentic these films could truly be. True, he did heavily collaborate with trans sex workers on Tangerine — but, ultimately, what is his intent? Is he just hoping to mine the lives of the disenfranchised and marginalized for his own profit and acclaim? And besides that, what does it mean for a fictional narrative to be authentic anyways? Also he’s a co-creator of the short lived Greg the Bunny. Maybe that doesn’t have any effect on anything — but, hey, someone had to say it.
With The Florida Project, Baker sought to bring his talents of capturing what people perceive as authentic to the ‘Hidden Homeless.’ Americans who, while not technically living on the street, are just barely scraping by. There was a time in my youth where I might have been considered amongst this population of Americans, so I went into The Florida Project highly skeptical. Even though I enjoyed Tangerine, I was certain I was just going to watch another movie plundering poverty for cheap tears.
But my concerns were for the most part swept under the rug by this gentle, if overlong, film.
If you’ve ever been to Disney World or Universal Studios, you are probably familiar with the setting of The Florida Project: that strange strip of massive flea markets, novelty motels, and a giant wizard’s head right outside Orlando. Specifically, our characters live at Magic Castle, a purple-painted motel designed for cheap-rent long term residency and tourists mistaking it for Magic Kingdom. The story follows Moonee, a six-year-old girl who lives in one of the rooms with her twenty-something mother, Halley.
For the most part, the story of hardship and poverty is framed from Moonee’s perspective, which is a good play on Baker’s part. Often, stories of the impoverished are framed from the perspective of the good social worker or some other outside hero character. Here we are simply presented with this little girl’s reality, framed from her own subjective experience.
There is nothing strange to Moonee about living in a motel, about her mother’s questionable parenting choices. It’s just her reality. As the world around Moonee expands, we meet other families like hers, short term guests, and motel manager Bobby, played wonderfully by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe subverts audience expectations of him as an actor and finds a quiet nobleness to exert. It is a subdued and beautiful performance of a decent man — and Dafoe never feels jarring when playing against the cast of non-actors.
Special props should be given to Moonee and Halley’s actresses, Brooklynn Kimberly and Bria Vinaite respectively. Kimberly, particularly in the film’s final moments, gives some of the most emotionally realistic acting I’ve ever seen from a child, and Vinaite sinks her teeth into the deliciously bifurcated role of Halley. Halley is an immense contradiction, a struggling young woman who is self destructive and violent but truly loves and cares for her daughter despite technically being a pretty bad parent.
The setting itself stands in for the cognitively dissonant experience of being a child in a poor environment, the specter of our culture’s dreams (those Disney lies) haunting over the proceedings. Moonee just wants to have the life of a child as she sees it in the media. To some extent, she does, by crafting her reality to match her perceptions — but even for her there is a breaking point when reality becomes too real, too heavy for her to comprehend.
And so she breaks away. She escapes to the land of children’s dreams: Disney. The movie doesn’t logically explain how this happens or what results in this. The climax is merely an emotional resolution — a moment where Moonee gets to live in her fantasies.
The scene is lovingly and illegally filmed, shot inside Disney with covert iPhones. It’s one of the more arresting movie endings this year, and left me with a smile. It was nice to see a drama about the poor that didn’t end in tragedy and roomful of old rich people crying.
I have some qualms, but they don’t seem particularly important. This is, simply, just a nice, pleasant movie that simultaneously never tries to shy away from the harshness of reality.
Is it authentic? Who’s to say. Either way, it works.
The Florida Project
dir. Sean Baker
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema!