In the three Sean Baker films I’ve seen, he’s dealt with people on the margins. In Starlet, it was an adult film actress, in Tangerine (famously shot with an iPhone) it was drag queen streetwalkers, and now in The Florida Project it is the occupants of welfare motels within spitting distance of Disney World. All of them have been empathetic–as I stated before, Baker loves his characters, roots for them, and you will, too, even though they may not be the people you think about every day.
The Florida Project centers around Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother, Haley (Bria Vinaite), barely more than a child herself. They are on some sort of public assistance, as the only work Vinaite does is buy wholesale perfume and sell it outside the swankier resorts. She also occasionally will turn a trick, which risks both her residency at the motel (ironically name The Magic Castle) and the descending of child services upon her.
The manager of the motel is Willem Dafoe, in a wonderfully subtle performance. We’re used to seeing Dafoe in intense roles, but this one, as a man who is doing his job but also looking out for his tenants, is one of great skill. He may get angry at Prince and her friends for shutting off the power, but he also chases away a pedophile and has paternal feelings about them.
Prince, who must be about six or seven, is also terrific. I wonder at children this age if they are really acting or just behaving–at the end of the film she breaks into tears and I hope it wasn’t because someone told her dog died or something. But then again, all acting is really just behaving, isn’t it? No matter, because she appears perfectly natural as a scamp who gets into trouble because there really isn’t anything better to do. When she and her friend Scootie burn down an abandoned house (they don’t get caught, but Scootie’s mother can see the guilt in his face) she breaks things off with Vinaite. She works, and even among the residents there can be a social strata.
The location, of course, is ironic in and of itself. The motels are candy-colored, and the kids are around gifts shops and ice cream stands. When Vinaite and Prince walk to the better hotels they go by Seven Dwarves Lane. But all of this Magic Kingdom stuff is meaningless to these kids, who could never hope to go there.
My only complaint about the film is the very ending, which takes the film out of the realistic and plunges it into magic realism (I won’t give it away, but there are a couple of “wait a minutes” in this scene). Otherwise, The Florida Project is one of the best movies of the year.