The Florida Project is the twenty-first century’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It captures a very specific time and place in American culture, through the eyes of a child. It uses vignettes and ideas that revolve around a greater whole than some sort of coherent story. And it features a large ensemble of characters who memorably inhabit the world and flesh it out. However, unlike the Mark Twain classic, Sean Baker’s film ultimately has a higher purpose: to inspire empathy for a group of people long since forgotten and cast out of society. And while the film never paints its characters as all good or all bad, it does paint them as something entirely greater: human. And through great storytelling and direction, The Florida Project stands out as one of the year’s best.
It’s the summer in Kissimmee, Florida on the outskirts of Orlando. Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberley Prince) is a six-year-old prankster living in a motel with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite). A natural leader with a penchant for shenanigans, she leads her little squad through pranks and games both innocuous and not, pissing off the understanding but put-upon manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) every chance she gets. Meanwhile, while her daughter blissfully makes the most out of childhood, the caring but inept Halley does what she can to make sure her daughter has food and shelter the next evening.
Sean Baker has made himself the poet of the outcasts. After breaking out with the skillful but disappointing Tangerine, a guerilla-shot dramedy about transgendered sex workers in L.A., Baker has moved his eye to the lowest of the lower classes living in Florida. In many ways, Baker could be the heir to John Waters, had Waters directed with his heart instead of his libido. Baker treats every character in this film like they are a real human, with real wants and needs, dreams and failures, so that no matter how you feel at them at the beginning or at the end, you will at one point empathize with them. Take Halley for example. The film makes no effort to portray Halley as a good mother. She has no control over her kid, she can’t provide the best life for her, and at times she can be downright unpleasant. However, as we get to know her, we learn that, despite her own shortcomings, she has nothing but love for her daughter, and does what she can to do right by her, even in their horrible situation. We also see the perpetual cycle she’s trapped in, unable to get a steady job because of the other sordid jobs she performs, forcing her to perform more sordid jobs. Despite her best efforts, it is impossible for her to “lift herself up by the bootstraps,” as the expression goes, to ever be anything more than a motel resident. And once we realize that, and we learn to recognize her pain, the more heartbreaking it becomes whenever we see her fail. The same can be said of the children. I won’t lie to you: for the first fifteen minutes of this film, these kids will annoy you. The leads, Moonee, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), are downright obnoxious. They spend most of the movie screaming, swearing, scamming, and occasionally committing accidental felonies. If you are unprepared for this behavior, these children can really put you off. However, as you get to know them, you begin to empathize and even love their wild shenanigans. You realize that their annoying behavior is just kids being kids, and it’s no different than any child you would meet in real life (because they’re all terrible until you get to know them). What’s more, if you have an issue with the terribleness of some of their behavior, such as scamming other children and tourists, committing misdemeanors against the town at large, and generally just pissing off the loving authority figures in their life, may I remind you that Tom Sawyer, considered the greatest American novel by many, is literally just a bunch of stories about kids doing terrible things? This movie is as American as it gets, giving us a Tom Sawyer experience that replaces nostalgia with empathy.
However, what I’m truly fascinated by is how Baker builds his world. If we are to continue this Sawyer comparison further down the rabbit hole, then it is safe to say that Baker paints his vision of Florida with the same kind of dreamlike romanticism of Twain’s Missouri. Baker utilizes his scenic design and the 35mm camera to capture a pastel-heavy dreamscape, gorgeous and nostalgic despite its fairly rundown and seedy core. It’s a beautiful, scary, stunning, and wonderful little world that can easily capture the imagination of a little girl who desperately needs an escape and distraction from the horrible life her mother faces and that she too will one day face. And speaking of that analogy, it makes perfect sense that these people are forced to live on the outskirts of Disney World. Living in a series of motels named as knockoffs to attract business (the bulk of the action takes place in the Magic Palace, a giant purple motel that is simultaneously soothing and an eyesore. Going to Disney World is such a magical experience that most people, including those living in the area, take it for granted, taking several trips a year due to convenience. While these characters may live on the outskirts of the Happiest Place on Earth, they cannot and will not get a chance to experience it, and the irony of it all is palpable, especially in scenes where they must deal with tourists. The vision that Baker has painted for us captures our imagination and dances with it for 100 minutes, building up to a finale that ties together the themes so perfectly with a jarring shift that you’ll walk out of the theatre in shocked silence for a good hour before you immediately want to discuss it. It takes a true visionary to pull that kind of filmmaking off, and Baker succeeds.
For a cast of mostly unknowns, everyone’s a real standout. I enjoyed the performance of Vinaite a good deal, and Cotto and Rivera both make entertaining kids. Obviously, Brooklynn Prince is the star of this thing, stealing our hearts with her open, natural, commanding performance as the modern day Tom Sawyer, and in the few scenes where we see her act emotional, it’s damn-near heartbreaking. However, if there’s anyone I want to commend outside of Prince, it’s the all-time great performance given by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe has been playing the oddball villain for so many years now, it’s easy for people to forget that at the beginning of his career, he broke out playing the embodiment of good, including his roles in Mississippi Burning, Platoon, and his role as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ. However, out of all his performances, I honestly believe that this may be his best one yet. Dafoe owns every single scene as the put-upon manager trying to keep everything afloat. He’s tired and respectful, spending money out of his own pocket to keep the people he loves afloat just long enough to get back on their feet, but he’s stern enough that he won’t let Moonee get away with her bullsh*t, and when a creepy old man with bad intentions wanders onto the property, Dafoe handles it with a touching toughness, in a sequence that stands out as one of the film’s best. I’m elated that after thirty years in the business, Dafoe can still shock and amaze me in such a way as he does here.
The Florida Project is not a film for everyone. It lacks the accessibility of, say, Moonlight. However, if you can get past Baker’s intentional greenness as a director, and the fact that these children can be downright annoying (like real children), then you’ll be treated to the next American Classic. This is a film that follows in the footsteps of classic American storytelling, embracing common tropes and bildungsroman plot points to tell the story of the forgotten underprivileged classes of this country. It’s a film that chooses empathy over sympathy, warmth over cold observation, and respect over pity. It’s a film I greatly enjoyed, and establishes Sean Baker as one of the most exciting directors of this new class.