Sean Baker’s 2015 film “Tangerine” gained attention at Sundance primarily for the way it was filmed: using two iPhone 5S phones with additional lenses. A neat gimmick, but it had a tendency to cover up how delightfully wild and sweet it could be, telling the story of two transgender prostitutes tearing their way through Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, one looking for revenge.
For his follow up, “The Florida Project,” Baker ditches the iPhone — it’s shot on 35mm film, save one last scene, moves the location east and even gets a real movie star (Willem Dafoe!) The result is stunning: this movie is absolutely alive, bursting with empathy and frequently funny and heartbreaking (sometimes all at once). It’s one of the best films of the year.
Set during the summer time in Kissimmee, Florida, the movie follows six-year-old Moonee (in a breakout performance from Brooklynn Prince), who lives at an extended-stay motel called the Magic Castle. The name is not entirely coincidental — it lies just outside of Disney World — but no one would ever mistake it for the real thing, save one hapless couple in a very funny sequence.
The denizens are all people who don’t have anywhere else to go, like Moonee’s mom Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite). With essentially no supervision, Moonee spends her days tearing through the place like a hellion, along with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). The trio spend their days spitting on cars, hustling ice cream from strangers (for their asthma, you see) and generally causing trouble for the manager Bobby (Dafoe).
It’s a joy to just follow these kids around, especially Moonee. Baker has found a bona-fide star in Prince, and directs the other child actors to perfection. Everything that comes out of their mouths sounds like it really could have been said by them, and they each have a way of winning you over through their antics. By the end, tears start to form at the thought of leaving her.
With stories like this, it would be far too easy to make it into misery porn or an idealistic vision of poverty. Baker is far too empathetic to let either of those things happen: while it is a joy to watch the children on-screen, the reality of their situation is never far. In some ways, it goes much farther than “Tangerine” in underlining its points, but never in blunt ways.
One of them is through Dafoe’s Bobby, a shift from his history of playing the villain into something more of a father figure. Bobby isn’t an antagonist (in fact, he’s shown to care a lot about the kids, as much trouble as they cause), and one can sense that this isn’t exactly where he wants to be either. Dafoe makes the most of every appearance, quietly filling Bobby with his own small backstory, dabbling in little jokes and perfecting every small movement. We see how much he truly cares for Halley and Moonee, despite repeated threats to throw them out.
“The Florida Project” is a beautiful film, both emotionally and visually. The sun-drenched violet landscapes that filled “Tangerine” return here, albeit with a more static camera. In truth, it’s hard to boil it down to a few words that won’t make it sound ordinary. There’s a genuine sense that Sean Baker deeply loves and cares about every character on screen, and it’s these qualities that make the social commentary sneak up on you. It’s life perfectly observed on-screen, perhaps one of the few that portrays poverty and homelessness with honesty without sinking into brutality, nor distorting the truth. It’s one you won’t want to look away from, even when it gets rough.