The movie’s vibrant cinematography gifts us the sunny outlook of a child.
Sean Baker’s extraordinary sixth feature, The Florida Project, shines a light on the housing crisis of post-recession Florida, but, surprisingly, it’s not a gloomy movie. Based around a group of cheeky six-year-old children who live in budget motels just a tantalizingly short stone’s throw away from every kid’s dream destination – Disney World – the film is an immersive ride into joyous childhood, steered by chief troublemaker Moonee (Brooklynn Prince).
Just as the saturated colors in Baker’s 2015 Sundance hit Tangerine bolstered that movie’s sense of vibrancy, The Florida Project’s cinematography carefully backs up the sense of infectious joy we soak up from the movie’s rambunctious characters. Given a quick glance at a Tumblr-esque panel of the film’s palette, you’d be mistaken for thinking it was something by Warhol. Its dominant colors are superlative; the most intense and pure versions of themselves they could possibly be. From the movie’s central set-piece – the eye-popping purple Magic Castle motel – to the bubble-gum blues of Floridian skies and the zesty orange tones of its fruit stores, The Florida Project is awash with colors at well-ripened saturation points. If ever they take on a softer tone, The Florida Project’s colors remain evocative of youth and playfulness: Halley’s (Bria Vinaite) shade of hair-dye, for example, is the same sickly sweet hue of blue as a unicorn frappucino.
Many of the film’s locations look like they’ve been 3D-printed straight out of a six-year old’s brain: among the gimmicky Disney-esque sights we glimpse are a knockoff gift shop shaped like a wizard, an ice-cream stand shaped like an ice-cream cone, and a store selling oranges shaped like – you guessed it – an orange. Home is no less spectacular; Moonee and pal Scooty (Christopher Rivera) live with their single parents in the purple-painted Magic Castle motel, which comes complete with faux turret.
The above backdrops (none of which were made especially for the film) all come in Skittles shades; exactly as a child with a free run at the crayon box might choose. The shock of the Magic Castle’s violet hue is almost violent on the eyes, while Orange World’s tangerine tones blend more harmoniously with its postcard-blue-sky background. These colors are as garish as you’d expect the roadside of somewhere called Seven Dwarfs Lane to be, but The Florida Project’s cinematography makes a conscious choice to carry through its vibrant color theme in its all-natural shots, too. Sunset scenes captured in the magic hour maintain the movie’s candy-colored palette, while vistas of lush green grass and real-life rainbows further add to the movie’s sense of organic visual stimulation.
“I wanted to almost make it seem as if the audience is coming into the theater with their senses enhanced. When you’re a child, the colors are brighter [and the] sounds are louder” – director Sean Baker speaking to Complex about why he opted for such a bold visual style for his biggest film to date.
It’s a testament to cinematographer Alexis Zabe and the rest of the film’s crew that Baker’s stylistic choice works to its intended effect so well. We’re able to largely gloss over the instability of Moonee’s life because we are so fully immersed in her cloudless perspective, which hasn’t yet developed the level of comprehension required to worry about rent, tricks, and unemployment. While the film’s excellent cast and its vivid dialogue deserve much credit in this respect, the movie’s brilliant colors are crucial to subconsciously arouse a childlike sense of wonder in viewers. It’s almost as if its E-number color-scheme has the same chemical effect as the hyperactivity-causing additives do, both on us as the engrossed audience and on the movie’s young troublemakers.
As audiences, our eyes are stimulated, and by association, so are our other senses. Often, whether we’re aware of it or not, our brains link colors with emotions and other abstract concepts, heightening the movie-watching experience. Every time the kids loiter around Orange World, for example, the vibrancy of the store’s citrus tones evokes a sense of summer and its corresponding heat. In dialogue, The Florida Project tells us that these are the dog days of the kids’ long, hot summer break, and that’s backed up by the beads of sweat we see running down their faces and the perpetual whir of the motel’s lobby fan we hear. Without matching color, though, there would be a sensory disconnect; it wouldn’t be easy to summon up an appreciation of the Kissimmee heat given only a palette of stony greys and drained blues. As in Tangerine‘s treatment of Los Angeles, color saturation works here to reinforce a deepened psychological awareness of the movie’s environment. The Florida Project’s ripe orange tones and azure skyscapes do just the trick at affirming and heightening the sense of warmth and humidity the movie wants to convey.
Perhaps most interestingly, the shade of paint chosen for the exterior of the Magic Castle motel adds another element of color metaphor to the film. Purple has long been linked to wealth and status: royalty and nobility, from as far back as the Roman Empire and as recent as the mid-19th century, deemed purple a color indicative of riches and power and paid high prices for status-signifying purple garments. Historically speaking, the exclusivity of the color purple was down to how hard it was to procure it; the dye was sourced from the ancient city of Tyre, meaning these clothes came with a hefty shipping fee only affordable to the elite. In this sense, a purple castle – a building whose link to power and prosperity doesn’t require explanation – would seem to give off the ultimate air of wealth, grandeur and status.
The thing is, though: the Magic Castle motel is definitely none of these things. The only magical aspect of the Magic Castle is the fact that it’s still running (credit is due here to Willem Dafoe’s quietly capable motel manager Bobby). Despite Bobby’s noble efforts, however, it remains somewhat shabby and dysfunctional and would appear to be the last refuge for those who’d otherwise be forced out onto the streets for lack of cheaper accommodation. What the purple (and the castle-inspired architecture) does here is an attempt to convey the opposite message; these are rooms fit for a king or a queen. The bedbugs give it away, though, and so there’s an ironic sense of juxtaposition lurking somewhere beneath the Magic Castle’s purple facade.