by Brett Yates
A review of Sean Baker’s new film about a childhood outside the gates of Disney World.
“The Florida Project” marks Director Sean Baker’s eagerly anticipated followup to his game-changing indie hit “Tangerine” (2015), and the essential approach of the newer work is the same as that of its predecessor: in each case, Baker took subject matter that, in the unlikely event of its receiving any other cinematic attention at all, would typically lend itself to a morose, heavy-handed social-issue melodrama—first, the plight of transgender sex workers of Hollywood in “Tangerine,” then the suffering of the “hidden homeless” of Greater Orlando in “The Florida Project”—and instead crafted a funny, warm-hearted but unsentimental human story whose underlying socioeconomic concern and clear eye for the grittier details of American poverty never precluded an authentic joy of cinema.
Adapting human deprivation and marginalization into silver-screen entertainment—an unapologetically fun time at the movies—without incurring just charges of misrepresentation, insensitivity or exploitation is no small feat; it doesn’t owe solely to the myopia of the Hollywood elite that most filmmakers don’t even try. In Baker’s movies, it helps that he sticks to the present tense: his characters are carefully and sympathetically observed products of their environments, but their particular histories are largely their own, and Baker’s curiosity tends to revolve around their quirks of behavior, their jokes, their inborn radiance. For critics who were frustrated by the passive protagonist of last year’s “Moonlight”—in which the traumas of violence, destitution and homophobia added up, for the young man at the movie’s center, to an all-encompassing strangulation of personality and self-expression, so that it was more or less left to the film’s vivid cinematography to supply life and color to his world—Baker’s talkative, lively heroines may be the antidote.
In the director’s latest, the most vibrant person in Central Florida is, without a doubt, a six-year-old named Moonee, an ebullient, mischievous, strong-willed girl who lives with her mom, Halley, in a motel room on Route 192 in Kissimmee, down the road from Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Halley struggles to make the weekly rent by selling perfume on the street; in the meantime, Moonee is on summer vacation and spends her time getting into adventures—befriending fellow kids, sweet-talking her way into free ice cream cones and exploring the nearby wetlands—amid the peculiar rundown landscape just beyond the Walt Disney Resorts.
In 1993, the author James Howard Kunstler claimed that suburban development had created “a hostile cartoon environment” on the outskirts of every American city, but it’s hard to imagine a manmade habitat more cartoonish than the bizarre expanse of novelty architecture that stretches southeast from the Magic Kingdom through Kissimmee. In addition to the usual Pizza Huts and Waffle Houses, there is an ice cream shop shaped like an ice cream cone and a citrus-themed superstore that looks like a halved orange. Enormous fiberglass wizards and mermaids decorate the facades of gift shops. If Disney World is The Most Magical Place on Earth™, its unreality extends well beyond the park gates, but the commodified fairy tale of its corporate mythology grows increasingly garish the farther one drives out into the swamps. The cheap motels in the area, which served tourists until the 2008 financial crisis turned them—permanently, it seems—into Orlando’s skid row, line streets with names like Princess Way and Seven Dwarfs Lane. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle Inn, a vast mauve edifice next to the Futureland Inn, where her best friend shares a room with her grandmother.
The Magic Castle is a real, still operational motel (you can book a room online right now for $36), and whatever its dramatic merits, “The Florida Project” is, like Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” (which concerned a boy living amid the huge New York City scrapyard Willets Point), a valuable cinéma vérité documentation of one of America’s strange places: a wasteland of aggressively (rather than incidentally) hideous commercial sprawl, grafted without grace or consideration onto a lush, watery ecosystem of obvious fragility. One of the movie’s best scenes has Willem Dafoe, as the gruff but benevolent motel manager Bobby, wearily shooing a beautiful flock of long-legged ibises from the parking lot.
The style of roadside construction in Kissimmee is deliberately gaudy; it’s meant to catch the attention of motoring tourists passing at 60 miles an hour, not to form a credible permanent habitat for humans. The wide boulevards aren’t designed for pedestrian use, and Halley, who doesn’t own a car, has to beg the local welfare agency for bus passes. But Moonee is young enough not only to exist unaware of the threat that she and her mom might at any moment end up on the streets or without a meal at dinnertime; she also has the innocence—for all her precocity—to inhabit her “hostile cartoon environment” as if it were an enchanted adventureland. We may worry for her when we notice how her amusingly defiant attitude resembles, in an incipient stage, her mother’s self-destructive disregard for society’s rules, but Moonee has such spirit and courage that it always feels like she’ll be OK, and for the most part her life is a joy to watch. The occasional grimness and persistent grime of “The Florida Project” sets it apart from the dainty childhood-fetishism of “Moonrise Kingdom,” but in a sense it occupies the same mental space of juvenile wonder, depicting the easy awe generated by the daily escapades of spontaneously creative girls and boys. For Moonee, living at the Magic Castle—which has an outdoor pool and plenty of empty rooms to explore—is kind of fun, actually.
For viewers, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable place to spend a couple hours, too. The building’s paint job is undeniably striking, and the scale of its gentle tackiness makes it feel like a place of cinematic imagination; it has the pleasing, self-contained artificiality of a memorable movie set, like the research vessel in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” or the city block in “Rear Window.” Baker feels content to linger here, and this marks the primary difference between “The Florida Project” and “Tangerine,” which moved through Hollywood like a candy-coated gunshot. It isn’t just that the studied compositional beauty of the 35-millimeter images in “The Florida Project” differs from the (equally appealing) kineticism of Baker’s iPhone camerawork in “Tangerine”; the two movies also employ somewhat contrasting modes of storytelling. “Tangerine” was groundbreaking in a number of ways, but the most revolutionary aspect was perhaps the way it wedded its contemporary social-realist concerns to a classic Hollywood format whose purpose had never been to edify or empathize: it was an old-fashioned screwball comedy that wasn’t at all old-fashioned, and its realistically downtrodden characters, instead of functioning as objects of sociological concern, operated as actors in a fast-moving comic misadventure.
“The Florida Project” is not without hints of genre—Moonee and her pals are, on some level, inhabiting a summertime hangout movie, not totally dissimilar to something like “The Sandlot” (in fact, Baker says his primary inspiration was Hal Roach’s “Little Rascals”)—but largely the film emerges as an observational mosaic in docufiction style. Moonee—played by the sparky, confident comedienne Brooklynn Prince—is at the center of it all, but even when Baker restricts the film’s point of view to the narrower dimensions of hers, it remains a portrait of a community, and the primary dramatic action stems from Halley’s economic and personal downward spiral and from Bobby’s good-natured attempts to maintain order amid the squalor of his motel. We settle in; the pace is the slow heartbeat of human affection, and if this is slightly less exciting than the relentless energy of “Tangerine,” it nevertheless allows for a multitude of low-key, charming, naturalistic scenes of kids spitting on cars and bumping their heads against walls, of motel residents complaining when the power goes out, of families watching fireworks over the Magic Kingdom as though the show were meant for them. Dafoe imbues Bobby with a touching warmth and shares the screen gracefully with a cast composed largely of children, first-timers and non-actors, including the Instagram star Bria Vinaite, who plays Halley.
Baker keeps his political agenda mostly out of sight, but one still leaves the theater thinking of the problems of America’s tourism economies, which generate loads of low-paying jobs alongside disproportionately high housing costs. Only in the movie’s final, stunning moments does it become fully apparent that we’ve been watching an upstairs-downstairs drama—that Disney World is a metaphor for the collective dream that’s inhabited by the privileged half of our country and is supported, on its fringes, by an infrastructure of deep human suffering. The thing is that Baker—whose fondness and respect for the communities he depicts are unquestionable—rarely sees any need to go upstairs: there’s as much to see and to love at the Magic Castle as there is at the Magic Kingdom.
“The Florida Project” is now playing several Southern cities. Check for showtimes here.
Brett Yates has lived in New Orleans, Durham and San Francisco, where he works as a reporter for the Potrero View.