When it comes to making the best of a film on a tiny budget, you just can’t really find anything better than 2015’s “Tangerine.” While I wasn’t able to catch it in theaters, as it never actually found a theater to screen in in Charlotte, Sean Baker’s dark comedy about two transgender sex workers in Los Angeles looking to track down one of their boyfriend’s mistresses is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking and timely, as well as providing what should’ve been star-making performances in Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. It was a big deal for independent film as it was the first major release of a film shot entirely on iPhones. Now, Baker has returned with yet another look into an often disregarded and overlooked area of American life: homeless youth. While the children in “The Florida Project” aren’t actually living on the street like the media depiction of homelessness would lead you to believe, there is a real culture in low-income Americans working week-to-week to keep themselves up in motels that will keep them. Baker’s films are far from comforting, but there’s a real charm in them that you don’t find many places.
“The Florida Project” represents a strange experience for myself as a critic. Leaving the theater, I really wasn’t sure how I felt about the film. I knew I liked it at a baseline, but I didn’t really know how much I did. Now, a few hours, another film and a long nap later, I think I might actually love “The Florida Project.”
Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Pierce) is a 6-year-old child living in Kissimmee, Florida, just south of Orlando. Living at the Magic Castle Inn with her single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), they struggle to survive from week-to-week, as Halley can’t seem to hold down a job. Making the most of her summer with friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik), Moonee doesn’t really seek to understand the struggle that life has put on her volatile mother. The kids make general mischief in the area, much to the ire of the uptight, but caring manager of the Magic Castle Inn, Bobby (Willem Defoe). As the summer progresses, Moonee begins to realize the temporary and fluid nature that her life as a homeless youth offers and it begins to affect her life in ways she couldn’t imagine.
“The Florida Project” takes a while to hook you, with the general mischievous antics of the kids coming across more as irritable delinquency at first, but as the world the kids live in begins to take shape around them, you begin to realize just how these kids came to be the way that they are. They’re well-meaning, but misguided, lacking responsible figures in their lives to show them right from wrong. These aren’t cookie-cutter, bored summer children, but a whole new breed of forgotten children that only seek to be acknowledged, to be recognized, to be loved. It’s quite a strange thing to see unfold on screen, as taking anything in “The Florida Project” at face value might paint an entirely different picture, but when you look into its eyes, you see the characters and the film for what it truly is: a broken, beautiful creature of no comparison.
Baker has ditched the iPhone in lieu of an Arri Alexa Mini for “The Florida Project,” and its effect is as dreamlike as they come. Bathed in pastel hues and grungy locales, “The Florida Project” hits a few dichotomies of film aesthetic that are challenging to take in at first, but work together nearly seamlessly in execution. The film can often feel claustrophobic, as the children don’t have any real means of transportation to get themselves out of their immediate area to explore, so the world of the Magic Castle Inn and the other surrounding motels really come to life as a breathing life-force of its own in ways that some major fantasy worlds in sci-fi and big-budget blockbuster films could only dream to have. Baker really knows how to paint a picture of a world not often seen really well, and for a straight white male director, being able to properly tell the stories of marginalize people outside of your own community is incredibly impressive, especially when does an intimately and sometimes darkly as Baker does in his films.
The performances in “The Florida Project” are all stellar too. The children, especially Pierce, all do wondrous work painting a picture of what feel like real-life kids in some truly fucked-up situations. Pierce has a real emotional command of herself that you don’t see in child actors, or even adult actors, that often. There is a scene near the end of the film that truly solidifies Pierce’s place in Hollywood for the coming years. Defoe, being the only recognizable face in the film (beyond Caleb Landry Jones for some ardent film fans), is also great as Bobby. He crafts a character of real grit and care for the people in his motel who might not always care for him. He doesn’t like his job and wishes he could be somewhere else at all times, but takes his job seriously and puts his heart into the lives he touches, including Moonee’s, greatly. But for me, it’s Vinaite who really won my heart as Halley. She’s a hard character to like at many times, as she’s volatile, confrontational, crude, occasionally irresponsible and unreliable, but she also cares for her daughter even when it’s nearly impossible to even care for herself. Her methods of making ends meet might be questionable, but she does it for her child and Vinaite’s portrait of this mother is as challenging as it is beautiful.
And that’s exactly how I would describe “The Florida Project”: challenging. It’s hard film to take in at first, and one might view it to be slow and repetitive at some points, but it’s a real-life depiction of something most people would prefer to turn their heads away from. It’s easy to compare “The Florida Project” to that of Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” from last fall (also an A24 release). While “American Honey” might hold my heart a bit more than “The Florida Project” as a whole, the worlds they portray aren’t pretty, or even likable a lot of times, but sometimes people have to do shitty things to make their lives actually work at even the most baseline level. “The Florida Project” doesn’t seek to offer any answers or solutions to the problems it poses, but rather seeks to view it through the eyes of those just coming to realize how unfair the system has treated them to end them up in that situation: children.
“The Florida Project” is a beautiful look inside a most un-beautiful world. It’s dark, funny, kind, crushing and oddly fulfilling as a film experience, even if you might not feel it to be at first. This is a film that challenges you to think about every little thing that goes on in and around it and the implications made from each action a character makes and each word said. Baker knows how to paint vivid, dream-like pictures of a forgotten America in ways I haven’t seen any modern filmmaker do as consistently as he. He’s not afraid to be bold and daring, even veering into some disturbing waters at times, but there’s no doubt he knows exactly what to get out of every single shot and camera move. The film’s conclusion might not leave any viewers with any sense of actual closure, but in the world these children find themselves in, the dream they get to strive for is their only endgame, and the journey for that has just begun.
Directed by: Sean Baker
Starring: Willem Defoe, Brooklynn Kimberly Pierce, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, and Caleb Landry Jones.
Runtime: 111 minutes
Rating: R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village.
An A24 release, June Pictures presents, a Cre Film and Freestyle Picture Co. production, a film by Sean Baker, “The Florida Project”