* * * * 1/2
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an enormously compassionate film; it is joyous and funny, incisive and surprising, and truly subversive. It manages to be furious about the state of affairs in the United States while never raising its voice nor venturing near any political imagery. It is sublime and must be seen.
I’ve seen two of Baker’s previous features, Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015). Both were original, often very funny, and determinedly empathetic for their characters who lived in the margins of society. However, The Florida Project towers above them as a major, mature work, one of the very best films of 2017. Like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight (1998), this is the big, confident, near-perfect film that delivers on a director’s enormous, already demonstrated, promise and potential.
Ostensibly, it’s about life among the community – the residents and the manager – at The Magic Castle, a motel in Orlando, Florida, that sits geographically close, but socio-economically worlds apart, from Walt Disney World. Many of the residents are essentially permanent tenants, living week-to-week, barely scraping by; some American media outlets refer to people in this predicament as the “invisible homeless”, for, although they technically have shelter, it is impermanent, insecure, hanging by the Damocles Sword of the weekly “rent”. Our primary characters are six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker found on Instagram, and who delivers an astonishing debut performance); as their life becomes subtly more precarious, they are watched over by the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), whose empathy and compassion make him an obvious stand-in for Baker himself.
Baker and his cinematographer Alexis Zabe tell the story through the perspective of Moonee and her friends (the camera never once ‘looks down’ at these little wonders); the bold tacky colours and neglected flora of and around the series of motels and small businesses that make up their world are rendered as bright, joyous, delicious. For at least half the film, Baker – and we – are content to delight in the children’s exultant, unsupervised play; it is the beginning of summer, and their holiday stretches before them like an endless sunny paradise. Even if they can’t afford to go into the Magic Kingdom, they have the pools, the corridors, the laundry rooms, the ponds, and, of course, each other. This section of the film feels defiantly episodic and breezy, and is utterly delightful, and very funny.
But Baker has an incredibly precise schematic up his sleeve, and all the while, he is slowly, calmly and very deliberately layering in story elements that will build to a narrative we never saw coming. It is a superb display of directorial control, especially given that he was not only working with many “non-actors”, but, often, six-year old ones. Impressively, unlike Tangerine, which was famously shot on iPhones, The Florida Project is shot on film and utilises very formal, often symmetrical, highly structured locked-off shots, so it wasn’t as though Baker and Zabe were just letting the kids be kids and shooting whatever they did. These remarkable little thespians are hitting their marks and acting within the frame, yet bring endless moments of ecstatic spontaneity.
Still, Baker and his cast and crew were flexible and agile enough to let their environment deliver them natural bounty: I can think of two scenes – one involving a rainbow and one some flamingos – that were obviously captured on the fly when opportunity knocked, and there may be more. Certainly, there are some astonishing sunsets that can’t have allowed for many takes, and Dafoe, the professional actor within this diverse young company, was obviously game to leap in and deliver at a moment’s notice. With the flamingos, he comes up with one of the film’s funniest lines, but with the kids, he truly lives within the moment, making every exchange full, rich and real. I have never loved him as an actor more.
As for little Brooklyn, it’s hard to sing her praises too much, and one shouldn’t. Like Quvenzhané Wallis is Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brooklyn is impeccable, the absolute heart and soul of the film, as astonishing find, a boundless life-force captured forever in a magical film. I hope she’s not dragged all over the red carpets, nor saddled with – as Wallis was – an Annie remake or the like. She’s Moonee in The Florida Project and always will be. One thing The Florida Project can teach us is that it’s vital that we let kids be kids.