In his previous film, Tangerine (2015), director Sean Baker generated instant buzz by using an iPhone 5S to capture the intimate stories of transgender sex workers. It is a loud and frantic work, but through the grounded perspective of a phone camera, the under-represented voices on screen become undeniable. His latest effort, The Florida Project, the story of a young girl’s life in an extended-stay motel, does away with clickbaity filming techniques in favour of regular old 35mm—but sacrifices no authenticity in the trade-off.
The film follows Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old living with her young single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle Motel, a garish purple building in the gaudy state of Florida. The film gives little information on the family’s background, and Baker instead chooses to focus on the motel itself as his main subject. Other children come in and out of the motel’s periphery, various situations and vignettes roll by, but the film remains anchored by the beautifully tacky locales of its Disney World-adjacent setting. The children propel the camera’s movement, lending an outlook that transforms a region thought of by many as a wasteland into a huge-yet-homey escape. Baker, along with cinematographer Alexis Zabe, film gift shops and strip mall monstrosities as if they were glorious landscapes, dropping the viewer into the oversized world of a child, and creating a palpable sense of loss when it inevitably begins to shrink.
Just like in Tangerine, Baker has strong empathy for his actors in The Florida Project, and allows them to fully inhabit their characters without resorting to expositional dialogue to flesh them out. Aside from a small role played by Get Out’s Caleb Landry Jones, the only established actor in The Florida Project is Willem Dafoe as the motel’s manager Bobby. For a man famous for his unsettling face, Dafoe’s performance is genuinely heartwarming. Dafoe plays off of his co-stars and scenery with compassion, making his performance worth much more than star power. The truly marquee performances of the film, however, are those of newcomers Prince and Vinaite. The two have a natural chemistry, and while their lack of film experience shows in small doses,—some moments can seem ham-fistedly sweet—their relationship becomes completely engrossing over a two-hour span.
The film builds to a powerful climax, and though its plodding pace and lived-in world are some of its major strengths, the gut-punch of an ending can at times seem, tonally, like a different story entirely. This world thrives on repetition, with much of its power coming from familiar neighbourhood sights. The ending’s diversion from that structure feels more like a departure rather than a natural progression. There are clear moments of development scattered throughout—mostly regarding the effects of Halley’s dissolving relationship with the motel—but the amount of time allotted for them paying off feels particularly rushed. So much space is allowed for growing with the characters at their own pace that the narrative has to catch up a little too quickly.
Any narrative problems the film encounters, however, are only noticeable because Baker has created such a real world—making filmic set pieces seem unnecessary. Grounded indie films too often feel the need to surround their realism with well-worn structures and clichés, and it is refreshing to find one that, for the most part, feels genuinely inhabited and natural. By leaning into its world and its characters, The Florida Project takes an area defined by preconceptions of its insignificance and injects it with an undeniably real scale and personality.
The Florida Project is currently screening at Cinéma du Parc and the Cineplex Odeon Forum.