A couple of years ago, US filmmaker Sean Baker made a big splash with a small film – Tangerine, a transgender drama set in West Hollywood and filmed on an iPhone 5S with the help of the Filmic Pro app. Colours popped, action rocked, emotions socked. And yet The Florida Project is a gigantic step up.
Set in and around an Orlando hotel ran by the fair-minded Bobby (Willem Dafoe, who reached out to Baker after seeing Tangerine), it energetically keeps up with six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her pals Scooty and Jancey (Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto) as they tear around the motel’s shabby grounds and its surrounding ‘attractions’: tacky gift shops, gaudy food courts, derelict housing projects, a busy highway. Nearby looms Disneyworld, though Baker is careful not to overegg the point.
Far from painting Moonee’s existence as one of deprivation and misery, Baker instead captures the exuberance of youth, these ragtag ragamuffins bursting with joy as they good-naturedly bad-mouth adults, gob from balconies onto parked cars, and scrabble together enough coins to share an ice-cream cone. Watching their life-affirming high jinks, it’s hard not to think of the young Antoine Doinel’s rambunctious antics in The 400 Blows.
Likewise, Moonee’s mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is not one to feel sorry for her below-the-poverty-line existence, or take it out on her kid. Sacked from her stripper job for refusing to give client-extras, she begs, borrows and steals to make her weekly rent, with Moonee often tagging along to help work the angles. What scant plot there is follows the narrowing of Halley’s options as she pinballs from one noisy confrontation to the next.
Just as Tangerine made headlines for its iPhone angle, The Florida Project is attracting column inches because Baker discovered Vinaite, a dazzlingly authentic talent, on Instagram. It’s a great detail but the real story here is the film, which sees the writer/director continue his preoccupation with society’s marginalised figures (Prince of Broadway focuses on a New York street hustler dealing knockoffs, Take Out a Chinese immigrant who falls behind on a smuggling debt). It’s vital filmmaking in every sense.
Superbly acted by non-professionals and Dafoe alike, The Florida Project gives viewers full residency in this sun-scorched microcosm, the weeks unfurling with a languorous urgency peculiar to childhood summers. When it becomes time to depart, it is hard to leave these people behind – though you can be sure we’ll be seeing plenty more of Vinaite and Prince in the future. The same, naturally, goes for Baker.