While heavily influential on contemporary cinema, the pseudo-documentary impulse that drove the Italian Neorealists seems to be in short supply in this day and age. Thankfully, there are filmmakers like Sean Baker carrying the torch into the 21st century. While Baker’s last film, 2015’s Tangerine, was lauded largely on the virtue of its unique formal conceit, The Florida Project embraces the technical lessons learned from shooting a feature film on an iPhone and translates them to beautiful 35 mm legitimacy. Composed entirely of shots that feel stolen even when they’re openly staged, Baker’s latest embodies the same sense of social realism and heart-rending veracity that defined the director’s previous film and combines it with a level of unstudied polish that belies its gritty subject matter.
And gritty it is, the narrative centers on the residents of a run-down motel in Orlando’s underbelly of forgotten souls, specifically a single mother and her young daughter living from scam to scam well below the poverty line. Baker’s decision to cast relative unknowns in his principal roles pays dividends here, as newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince shine in their respective turns as the mother/daughter duo distinctly lacking in social graces. Prince’s Moonee — a foul-mouthed delinquent with a penchant for misguided adventures — functions as both protagonist and point-of-view character, a narrative conceit that allows Baker his greatest emotional gut-punch in the film’s third act.
By telling his story through the eyes of a child, Baker captures the resiliency that naiveté can impart to children. Moonee doesn’t fully comprehend how bad things are for her — it’s all she’s ever known. The counterpoint to this perspective comes from Willem Dafoe’s Bobby, the gruff motel manager whose generosity and paternalistic leanings extend deeper than he lets on. It’s a career-high performance from Dafoe, who provides a grounding influence on the unrestrained energy of both Vinaite and Prince.
Baker is more fixated on character than story, and the way he develops his narrative through lines is more episodic than linear. This is a masterstroke from a screenwriting perspective because it narrowly sidesteps the predictability that the film’s story world practically necessitates. We know things are unlikely to end well for this struggling family, but by the time tragedy inevitably strikes, reason has been subsumed by sentiment, and the audience finds itself rooting for a happy ending that could never be. The film’s one true stolen shot, a final coda in the Magic Kingdom from which the film subtly takes its name and which harkens back stylistically to the iPhone immediacy of Tangerine, is almost certainly a fantasy masking a soul-crushingly unpalatable truth.
I spent the first hour of The Florida Project internally bemoaning its coterie of shrieking children, horrified at behavior that would have warranted a thorough reading of the riot act in my household when I was coming up. By the backstretch, I was so transfixed that I had forgotten my objections almost entirely. It’s a challenging prospect to humanize those who live on the outskirts of society, but imparting pathos to the marginalized seems to be Baker’s modus operandi (Greg the Bunny notwithstanding). The fact that he manages to do so without digressing into exploitation is nothing short of incredible. Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material. Opens Friday, Nov. 10 at Grail Moviehouse.