Playing in limited release is one of the most exquisite portraits of childhood put to film, and without question one of the greatest pictures of 2017. Sean Baker’s glimpse into poverty in sunny Kissimmee, Florida is at once beguiling, alarming, and sweet. Set in a grungy refuge for the near-homeless against the deceptive backdrop of the magical fringes of Walt Disney World, The Florida Project heralds Baker’s decisive arrival as a filmmaker. Willem Dafoe’s work urges the Supporting Actor Oscar, and the film demands a space on anyone’s short list for Best Picture.
Sean Baker burst into public awareness in 2015 when his independent feature Tangerine commanded the industry’s attention for being shot in entirety on iPhone 5’s. The director’s bold move drastically reduced shooting costs, and simultaneously carved out a gimmick that put the film on the world stage. Besides his stunt in production, Tangerine warranted consideration due to Baker’s subversion of casting conventions, as well as his defiantly impartial portrayal of L.A. street life. The film was a critical darling, but Tangerine failed to garner any Oscar nominations.
With a cast of adept newcomers and an Academy favorite, Baker’s critically-lauded The Florida Project should see his luck turn around. Similar to Tangerine, the director takes a gamble by furnishing a roster of unknowns almost devoid of experience. The film stars seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, an exceptional find, and a genuine charmer with remarkable range for her young age. Using Instagram as his source for discovery, Baker casts acting novice Bria Vinaite as Moonee’s mom Halley in a profound performance that ensures a bright career ahead.
In The Florida Project, Baker immerses us into the world of six-year-old Moonee, a troublemaking little girl as she plays her days away over one summer in Kissimmee, Florida. Moonee lives in an extended-stay motel with Halley, a struggling bottomed-out single mom (picture the “cash me ousside” girl from Dr. Phil), who only gets out of bed to make weekly rent by peddling perfume with Moonee on the street. When Halley isn’t exploiting Moonee’s cuteness for cash, she turns a blind eye to her daughter running amok around their living community with two other kids.
The majority of the film is shot from Moonee’s point of view, highlighting her elation as she explores all of the wonders of her environment along with her little friends Scooty (Chrisopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Kissimmee, located on the outskirts of the Walt Disney World Resort, is fashioned toward the amusement of local tourists. Moonee’s hotel is called “The Magic Castle,” while Jancey lives in “Futureland,” and they frequent streets such as “Seven Dwarfs Lane” where gift shops shaped like giant elves and ice cream cones adorn the breezy Florida scenery.
Despite the fanciful monikers, Moonee and her friends live in decrepit death traps filled with drug addicts and scum. The stark contrast between the saccharine Disney backdrop and the filth of Moonee’s reality evokes The Glass Castle from earlier this year, in which an oblivious impoverished child reacts to their world in wonder, even when their life is draped with horrors. Baker’s juxtaposition of enchantment and revulsion is balanced with a masterful hand, annexed by aesthetic cinematography by Alexis Zabe that offers some striking symmetrical wide shots.
We follow these neglected kids as they wander into disturbing situations, play with hazardous objects, and don appalling behavior, all in the bliss of youthful ignorance. Willem Dafoe is sensational as The Magic Castle’s middleman manager Bobby Hicks. Bobby has his job made out for him, dealing with not only the motel’s unruly houseguests, but Moonee and her friends constantly hassling him and getting into trouble. Regardless of his understandable frustration, Bobby’s father-like concern for Halley and her parenting tactics with Moonee is unmistakable.
Baker’s execution of The Florida Project is similar to Tangerine in that of his rigidly objective presentation of Halley’s shameful negligence and Moonee’s shocking behavior. With almost no score or hidden manipulation, the acting takes center stage. Working with children, their limitations inevitably emerge in some instances, but overall Baker elicits pristine performances from these youngsters. Even with focused, taut direction, Baker still manages to experiment, as with a charming edit of Moonee while out to eat, or with his brilliant, yet divisive time lapse.
For the ending, Baker eschews his established style of 35mm in silence by pulling out his iPhone and a musical soundtrack that follows Moonee and Jancey in a lengthy guerrilla time lapse shot as they run away to Disney World. It’s an audacious break in convention that drew some fire from critics, but has its place, as it brings home the film’s themes of childhood wonder and its invulnerability to life’s cruelties. With a staggering exhibition of performances and a startling exposure of poverty that is rarely seen in media, The Florida Project is a directorial masterpiece.