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Sean Baker excels at shining a light on people who feel or who are on the fringes of society. His iPhone-shot breakthrough film Tangerine brought us into the little-seen world of black trans working girls and did so with breathtaking honesty and humor. His newest film, The Florida Project (Walt Disney’s working title name for Disney World), is a superb follow-up to his critical hit Tangerine as explores the deep marginalization that exists for the denizens of a pair of off-brand residential motels on the outskirts of Orlando’s Disney World, the Magic Castle and Futureland.
The Florida Project is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Our window into this world is shown through the eyes of a trio of precocious child protagonists: Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). These kids cuss, spit on cars and cause general daily melee at the motel. Parents are either nonexistent or not paying attention. Moonee’s mom Halley (played with astonishing visceral detail by Bria Vinaite) bounces between ‘dancing’ gigs, selling off-brand perfume and the occasional hotel hook-up. By all counts she’s a pretty bad mother but Baker and his film are not trying to foist judgment on her. She’s doing the most and best that she’s able to do and the nakedness that Baker presents this to us is bracing, invigorating and vital.
Newcomer Brooklynn Prince is pure magic; a firecracker of intensity and confidence, this girl is a star. Street smart but still a fragile 6-year old girl underneath. She’s given pretty much control of the film, is in nearly every scene and propels the action through nearly all of its two hour running time. It’s unquestionably one of the best performances of 2017 and one of the most assured child breakthrough performances of the decade, right alongside Quvenzhané Wallis and Jacob Tremblay.
For Willem Dafoe, he may have the role and the performance of his career. As the motel’s super, he’s constantly berated and put upon by ungrateful tenants who sometimes never see the true impact of his actions. There is a sequence in the film where Dafoe’s Bobby is high up a ladder refreshing the paint on the garishly colored motel when he sees a suspicious old man lurking among the children playing. He and only he sees what’s going to happen. Bobby is very much the heart of what keeps the Magic Castle alive with his patience and warmth and as the father figure to the fatherless in what seems sometimes like 24-hour day care.
This movie is so good it has Caleb Landry Jones in it and he’s not an utterly terrifying creep.
Baker, in concert with cinematographer Alexis Zabe, plops our characters down and frames these locations, fantastically cartoony businesses and buildings perfectly. There is one shot with the sign for Futureland in the foreground with a huge billboard in the background that says ‘Pregnant?’ It’s a moment that is both humorous and accidentally honest.
The Florida Project challenges us to spend time with people at their best and their worst and all of the mundane things in between. It shows us characters observationally that we can sympathize with but never feel sorry for. It can be very easy to be an observer of someone else’s life of poverty or sadness and maintain an air of being above it and sympathy that borders and patronizing. Baker presents his subjects without judgment and in the end, in what might be the most heart-swelling sequence of the year, ultimately finds the unbridled hope and magic that any one of is looking for. It’s one of the year’s best films.
Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material
Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
A24, Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, June Pictures, Sweet Tomato Films. Produced by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou. Executive Producer: Darren Dean
Director: Sean Baker. Writer: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch. Cinematographer: Alexis Zabe. Editor: Sean Baker