If his two most recent films are any indication, Sean Baker could make a worthy career out of empathic portrayals of marginalized lives in America. Tangerine (2015) looked at the ups and downs of a friendship between a pair of transgender prostitutes in L.A. Now, with The Florida Project, Baker focuses upon spunky 6 year old Moonee and her underemployed single mom Halley.
Both movies were directed, co-written, and edited by Baker. In each, the characters are not saintly or glamorized. Sin-Dee and Alexandra, the pair at the heart of Tangerine, do their share of backstabbing and making up again.
In his newest film, Halley won’t win any “Mother of the Year” awards for the sugary, junk food diet she feeds little Moonee, or for teaching her to cuss like a sailor on shore leave. Likewise, Moonee is the type of kid whose relentless scheming you’d be just as likely to find endearing or aggravating on any given day.
The Florida Project opens with Moonee and two of her pals leaning against the purple pastel wall of the motel where their families have established semi-permanent residence. Despite the hopeful names of their lodgings – Magic Castle and Futureland Inn – and despite living in rock-throwing distance of Seven Dwarfs Lane, their Orlando is hardly of the Magic Kingdom variety.
Moonee’s mom Halley can barely pay for their lodging from week to week. Employment as an exotic dancer isn’t working out, having angered her boss with her unwillingness to perform sex acts on the customers, and other job offers aren’t exactly rolling in. Soon, Halley is resorting to borderline legal schemes like selling perfume, bought wholesale, in the parking lot of a nearby country club.
Typical of kids her age, Moonee is mostly oblivious to her mom’s worries about their hand-to-mouth existence. Instead, she relishes the meals she gets for free from a pancake house, or the ice cream cones that she and her friends share when they’ve begged enough coins from passersby. On summer break from school, Moonee savors her role as alpha of her pack, planning mischievous outings to abandoned condos to break windows, or leading her friends to visit a cow-filled pasture on a “safari.”
The narrative looseness of The Florida Project feels entirely right for this tale of a mother and daughter who live in such an unsettled manner. Likewise, we the viewers are left uncertain what turns the story will take, only harboring a growing tension, even dread, as legal options for survival are increasingly ruled out for Halley.
In a similar vein, we get no backstory for these characters, but are instead plunked down into the middle of a typical summer day for them. This, too, fits with the need for Halley and Mooney to exist moment to moment.
Hovering at the periphery of many scenes is Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle Inn. Perpetually harried by the unending demands to fix the ice machine or a busted dryer, Bobby is a guardian angel of sorts. Sometimes, he’s the heavy, discouraging tenants from conducting illegal business from their rooms. More often, though, he’s watchful and benevolent, as when he catches a creepy lurker taking too much interest in the kids at the inn.
Bobby is also the only character played by a familiar actor. Willem Dafoe is ego-less here, blending in with the rest of the ensemble as a weary, well-intentioned everyman. (Though it’s apt that the actor who once played a very human Messiah in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ would witness all the sufferings of this world, but only have the ability to apply temporary bandages to the open wounds of our society.)
Halley is brought to life by Bria Vinaite, another newcomer to the screen. (Baker discovered this until-now non-actress on Instagram, where she was hawking her cannabis-themed clothing line.) Vinaite infuses her role with a plausible toughness, resilience, and affection.
As director and editor, Sean Baker wisely refuses to embellish the body of his film with an external film score. Fitting with Moonee’s sunny optimism, The Florida Project opens with Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” Baker then brings in music for his film’s conclusion, in a segment that boldly departs stylistically from the rest of his movie, and succeeds fantastically in so doing. (Consciously or not, the ending also brings to mind the definitive child-in-trouble classic, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.)
Just as Sean Baker took us off the tourist trail in the Los Angeles of Tangerine, he imparts The Florida Project with a vivid yet faded sense of place. We see how the grandiosely cheesy architecture of a citrus emporium shaped like a giant orange could draw out-of-state visitors, just as a gift shop presided over by a giant wizard might appeal to a minivan with a road-weary family.
Yet these things form an inaccessible background for Moonee and Halley, just as they only observe Disneyworld’s Independence Day fireworks from a distance. To his credit, Baker doesn’t preach about the divide between these two Americas, but instead subtly shows it to us, by virtue of the ironically optimistic signs and place names that his camera briefly lingers upon. Baker compels us to look at this other America, these marginalized individuals with their dreams and frailties that his camera embraces. Baker then invites us to do the same.
3.5 out of 5 stars