Though director and writer Sean Baker is drawn to characters whose identities could easily be politicized—undocumented immigrants (Take Out), transgender sex workers (Tangerine), or working class street hustlers (Prince of Broadway)—his resulting work never feels like it’s part of a larger agenda. Rather, we get the sense that he’s sharing these characters’ stories not with the indignation of “These are the stories that need to be told,” but with the joy and hope that “These are the stories that people will want to hear, if I can tell them truthfully.” And that difference in perspective shows, perhaps never so clearly as in his most recent film, The Florida Project.
The Florida Project is set in the motels surrounding Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and the cast of characters is comprised of the working-class, extended-stay guests who inhabit them. But the star of the film is undoubtably Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Price), an audacious six-year-old who cruises her dingy kingdom with the authority of a queen, alternately charming and terrorizing those around her. She schemes and dreams with her friends, Scooty and Jancey (Christopher Rivera and Valeria Cotto), tests the patience of the motel’s long-suffering manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), and echoes every sassy retort from her mother Haley (Bria Vinaite).
Baker excels not only at making observations about childhood, but at expressing them from a child’s perspective. This isn’t just a story about Moonee, this is a story told from her point of view, all three-and-a-half feet of it. We see her summer unfold through a series of vignettes: Moonee and Scooty spitting on cars from the balcony, Moonee taking Jancey on a “safari” to the nearby cow pasture, Mooney and her crew convincing a woman they need money for ice cream because of their “asthma”, Moonee and her mom earnestly selling wholesale perfume in the parking lot of a fancy hotel. Though compelling, these brief portraits don’t immediately disclose a through narrative, but it’s there, and all the more powerful because of how subtly it reveals itself. We learn of Haley’s foray into sex work, and what it means for their family of two, not through a single scene or any overt dialogue, but through Moonee’s acceptance of her seemingly innocuous routine: her nightly bath, with the door shut and music turned up, or her excitement over their weekly “swimsuit selfie”, oblivious to its intended purpose. Our hearts break for Moonee, not because Baker tells us they should, but because we can see what she can’t—that her world, cherished and whole and flawed, is about to be torn apart.
But Baker avoids the gritty bleakness common in so many other loss-of-innocence stories by infusing Moonee’s world with the magic she sees in it. Shot on 35mm film, The Florida Project has the creamy, colorful look of a small town ice cream parlor; there are rainbows and stuffed animals and candy pastels. Almost everything about Moonee’s life is either cheap or short term, from her food to her friendships to living quarters, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe bathes it all in sunshine and renders it luxurious. The decision to shoot on film honors Moonee with the tactile permanence that her upbringing lacks.
Baker, who has repeatedly showed audiences that he’s more than adept from the director’s chair, also has an eye for casting. It’s hard to imagine The Florida Project with anyone other than its eventual leads. Tiny star Brooklynn Price demonstrates all the endearing precociousness of other childhood breakout performances (think Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine or Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild) and then some—what’s unique are her brief flashes of maturity and ruthlessness that hint at some of the sorrow to come. Price breathes hyper-realistic life into Moonee, from damp snarly ponytail to scuffed Converse toe.
But another equally exciting newcomer is Bria Vinaite as Moonee’s mother. Scrappy and blue haired, Vinaite’s Haley is a skinny dragon, breathing a scorching mixture of easy carelessness and defiance. She’s simultaneously lazy and industrious, sincere and manipulative, a terrible mother…and a wonderful one. Despite acting more like Moonee’s rebellious babysitter than her parent, Haley loves her fiercely, and shows her that continuously, by providing for her (delivery pizza and dollar store splurges) and defending her mischief. Without ever referring to it, she imbues Haley with a woundedness beneath the bluster, a quality that elicits our sympathy for a character we might otherwise hate. And old-timer Willem Dafoe, as Bobby the manager, is at his best here. He upholds what little structure his tenants have by insisting that they follow motel protocol, berates a potential sex offender for lingering near the kids, and literally keeps a roof over their heads. He’s weary and a bit of a pushover, but he’s also the unconditionally loving and protective father that Haley and Moonee so desperately need. Few actors could pull off his reluctance and commitment with this level of nuance.
All of this is why The Florida Project should, but probably won’t, be the movie on everyone’s lips. Like its protagonists, it stubbornly defies categorization: it’s about kids but for adults, bleak but uplifting, narrative but meandering, timeless but ephemeral. And beautiful, which is why it should’ve been as hotly anticipated as the next Marvel movie. But this seems unlikely, and that’s because this is a film that doesn’t tell us how or what to feel. The Florida Project is a piece of art that resists being used, as either a political or moral vehicle; you don’t get the sense that Baker made it to “say” anything. And perhaps that’s the best kind of story—one that springs from the artist’s intuition of reality, and from the desire to chase down the truth of a person rather than the truth of a concept. Where others would’ve taken Moonee’s story and told it for her, Baker silences the audience and then gives it back.