Although it has been out a while, The Florida Project is a movie that will continue to be discovered and enjoyed long after it leaves theaters. Awards attention, most of it insufficiently focused solely on Willem Dafoe’s supporting performance, will help in this. As will, hopefully, the extended praises of critics such as myself and features like ours discussing its use of color or genuine locations or highlighting its influences and likeminded works, as this list does.
Our Gang films (1922-1944)
Not only has filmmaker Sean Baker acknowledged the influence of Hal Roach’s Our Gang (or The Little Rascals) series of films on The Florida Project but the new movie gives thanks to the classic comedies — specifically mentioning Roach, directors Gus Meins and Robert F. McGowan, and child star George “Spanky” McFarland — in its end credits. Baker has truly loved these shorts (and one feature) since childhood, and they previously inspired parts of his earlier features, as noted in a 2012 IONCINEMA.com interview:
“When I was growing up, Hal Roach’s ‘Our Gang’ shorts would play on local NYC television around 3pm everyday. I always ran home from school to catch them. I consider Gus Meins and Robert F. McGowan to be two of the truly underrated directors in cinema history. Their work with the Rascals and Laurel & Hardy remains some of the best comedy I’ve ever seen. Both ‘Prince of Broadway’ and ‘Starlet’ are directly influenced by ‘Our Gang’ shorts. ‘Choo-Choo!’ has a scene where Spanky continuously punches an adult in the face… our homage is little Prince slapping Lucky in the face. And the character of Grandma played by Zeffie Tilbury in ‘Second Childhood’ was the inspiration for Sadie in ‘Starlet.'”
As for the ‘Our Gangs’ films’ influence on The Florida Project, Baker has addressed it in just about every interview done in promotion for the movie. And it’s right there in the press notes, as well:
“A modern day ‘Our Gang.’ This is how I like to describe ‘The Florida Project.’ ‘Our Gang aka The Little Rascals’ — The Hal Roach-produced comedy shorts of the ‘20s and ‘30s, essentially focused on children who lived in poverty during the Great Depression. But their economic state was the backdrop. The children’s humorous adventures were the focus.”
That, of course, also describes the situation of The Florida Project, with the backdrop there being related to the recent Great Recession. Starting with the housing market collapse and continuing through the subsequent financial crisis, many families became homeless and moved into motels like the ones in Kissimmee, Florida, that Baker features in his movie. The context is far more apparent and dramatic in The Florida Project, though, even if the children are themselves just as ignorantly blissful as the “Little Rascals” are in their films.
Forbidden Games (1952)
Children during wartime is always a fascinating subject matter for movies, because of that similar happy unawareness (or half-awareness) of the true dangers and devastation going on. I like Nick Allen’s mention of Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games in a RogerEbert.com interview with Baker as having a similar “sense of ‘do these kids not know life sucks?'” Of course, the kids in The Florida Project aren’t in as dire a situation as French children in World War II, witnessing parents and pet dogs gunned down by enemy planes, but there is a relative, analogous theme between them.
Forbidden Games is about a little girl about the same age as Moonee in The Florida Project — and like newcomer Brooklyn Prince, the still-working Bridgitte Fossey gives one of the best child performances of all time. After her family is killed, she is taken in by a clan of farming peasants as she deals with the loss. The film is funnier than you’d expect — or perhaps you would expect it because, like Baker’s movie, it’s following kids (the girl befriends the farmer’s son) as their lives remain more innocent and imaginative and mirthful despite the time. But also like Baker’s film (to lesser degree), Clement’s was criticized for making light of the serious subject matter.
There are numerous other movies worth recommending with the same idea, including Hope and Glory, Grave of the Fireflies, Ivan’s Childhood, Turtles Can Fly, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Tin Drum, and Life is Beautiful, in which a father attempts to shield his young son from the horrors of the concentration camp they’re in. But Forbidden Games is, as far as I can tell, really the first of the kind.
Little Fugitive (1953)
If you leave The Florida Project wishing you could see what happens next as the kids sneak into Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, check out this little indie classic and pretend it’s a sequel. Little Fugitive, which earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, follows a young boy as he runs away to Coney Island. It’s not the same as Disney but it’s got an amusement park, and the way filmmakers Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin shot it, with a portable camera on the fly, is like Baker’s iPhone cinematography in just that final shot. The movie also visually inspired the French New Wave, particularly Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which is another film worthy of recommendation after you see The Florida Project.
Because Little Fugitive was shot mostly covertly without people realizing, causing bystanders around Coney Island to become unwitting extras, it also relates to Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow, the 2013 movie that wowed Sundance with its unapproved use of the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland as not just a setting but as a secret shooting location. Baker has discussed the final moment of The Florida Project in connection with Escape from Tomorrow (which he never watched) and how there was never the same concern about Disney suing them but that his production consulted the same lawyers Moore’s did.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
Plenty of critics have referenced Charles Burnett’s legendary thesis film, Killer of Sheep, in their write-ups on The Florida Project. More surprising is the fact that it’s also cited in at least one review of Baker’s Tangerine, as well. But Baker is unsurprisingly a fan of Killer of Sheep. He recently included it in a list of five favorite neorealist films, alongside such obvious picks as Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.
He even got to take part in the presentation of Burnett’s honorary Oscar at last year’s Governor’s Awards, as seen here:
While Baker doesn’t mention his own latest movie or its link to Killer of Sheep, you can tell in what he highlights about Burnett’s work what has resonated for him and inspired Tangerine, The Florida Project, and his entire career: the lack of a three-act structure, the non-professional or first-time actors, the non-exploitative focus on a community on the margins, and the political and social significance. Specific to its connection with The Florida Project, though, is Killer of Sheep‘s natural scenes of the blissfully oblivious children at play mixed with the episodic story of their poor working-class father.
Other films that have been referenced in reviews as being like The Florida Project include David Gordon Green’s 2000 debut, George Washington, which was actually also heavily influenced by Killer of Sheep, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, which introduced us to another amazing six-year-old girl (played by another amazing young actress, Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis) who is pretty much on her own in a life of magically ignored poverty. In an interview with ScreenFish, Baker admits that The Florida Project probably took as long to get off the ground as it did because they first sought funding when Beasts was out and his movie seemed too similar.
I’ll always take an opportunity to recommend this hardly available Oscar-nominated documentary, but while I wasn’t initially sure if it was a great fit for this list I, fortunately, learned it’s actually an influence on The Florida Project. In the aforementioned RogerEbert.com interview, Baker mentions how the production watched a lot of “children-oriented films,” including Ken Loach’s Kes, Truffaut’s Small Change, the 2007 Korean feature Miracle on 1st Street, and this effort by director Martin Bell and his photographer wife, Mary Ellen Mark.
He doesn’t talk about the link, but I suppose there’s a bit of Streetwise in all of Baker’s work. For The Florida Project alone, it may seem like a stretch as the doc focuses on teens who’ve run away or just tend to hang out on the streets of Seattle, some of them hustling and prostituting themselves to get by. The tragic world encountered in the film and the tie-in series of photos by Mark is one that surely wasn’t really noticed by the majority of Seattleites. Like the inhabitants of the Magic Castle motel in Baker’s movie, they’re the “hidden homeless.” Streetwise was followed by a drama by Bell that’s kind of a remake and prequel called American Heart and a recent documentary sequel film and book called Tiny Revisited.
Chop Shop (2007)
Ramin Bahrani was once, like Baker, a revelation for modern neorealist cinema in America. Tangerine and The Florida Project have made me excited for independent cinema in a way previously felt with Bahrani’s Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. This one, like The Florida Project, is about a kid who is basically homeless but happily dwells in a place in the shadow of somewhere families with money go to. In this case, the place is a mini metropolis of auto shops in Willets Point, Queens, next to Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets played (Citi Field can also be seen being built during the making of the movie), and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the US Open is held.
Chop Shop‘s main character isn’t just a child hanging around while his parents work. In fact, he’s an orphan, so he works at one of the repair shops himself, and he’s not exactly ignorant to his social status or the miserable circumstances of his life. Like Moonee’s mother, the boy’s sister winds up resorting to prostitution to help with their money problems. There are also schemes to rip-off the people in the area heading to those relatively luxurious sports entertainment complexes. Even though the protagonist here is a good deal older than Moonee, the movie has the same sort of raw spirit that offers a balance of wonder and heartbreak.
Also relevant is Bahrani’s more commercial movie 99 Homes, which is set in central Florida during the housing crises. Baker, who calls Bahrani a friend, has told a funny story in interviews about how he learned 99 Homes star Andrew Garfield stayed in one of the motels on that strip where the Magic Castle is located, and Baker thought Bahrani must have been making a movie just like his own. He also acknowledged to /Film that, “We’ve made similar movies. Man Push Cart is very similar to Take Out. Goodbye Solo had a lot of Prince of Broadway stuff. So we’re basically always making similar movies at the same time.” One more honorable mention that’s related to Chop Shop is the Sensory Ethnography Lab documentary Foreign Parts, which was also filmed at the Willets Point auto shops.
Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County (2010)
There is a slight documentary quality to The Florida Project, enough for it to be nominated for the Cinema Eye Honors’ hybrid-focused Heterodox Award this year. But if you want to really see a documentary version of Baker’s movie, check out this HBO feature by Alexandra Pelosi. Instead of being set in the shadow of Walt Disney World, the focus here is on kids who live in motels near Disneyland in California. They’re close enough that they can watch the park’s fireworks from the parking lot.
There’s not as much of a point made about these homeless families being so close to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” though, as it’s about the contrast between these poor people and the average residents in this mostly wealthy area. Although recommended for context, this is admittedly one of the rare docs I don’t prefer to its fictional or drama counterpart. It’s not as magical or as compelling and the kids sometimes seem like they’re being used by the film, veering towards the relevant Oscar winner Born Into Brothels. Of course, on the plus side compared to The Florida Project, it does have the significance of being a genuinely real look at this problem.
City World (2012)
Finally, this is the film that I immediately thought of — before Pelosi’s doc even — when I first saw the trailer for The Florida Project. The obscure feature by Brent Chesanek is also about a child living very close to Walt Disney World, the vicinity of which is significant context for his story. Or non-story. Not easily defined, this movie is a montage of beautifully shot landscapes in Orlando, none of which show any sign of the tourist meccas or of any human life at all — there’s a post-apocalyptic feel to the whole thing. The child, a boy, is never seen and only narrates poetically over the visuals.
Imagine if Terrence Malick made The Florida Project instead of Baker and you get some idea of the tone if not true aesthetic of City World. This film offers a mesmerizing sensory experience and is one of the best essay films I’ve ever seen (and heard) so it’s still surprising that it’s such an unknown gem. Because it’s centered on a metropolitan area, Orlando, I also consider it among the best city symphony films, even if it’s also more imaginatively and dreamily narrated than the genre is used to.
Never mind the selections above. If I can get The Florida Project fans to see any one movie afterward, this is it, and if I manage to recommend it to even one person I’ll be happy.