In ‘The Florida Project,’ filmmaker Sean Baker has replaced the nostalgia of white picket fences with the carparks of Orlando.
You might want to remind yourself that acting is an extremely difficult trade whenever you watch a Sean Baker film because you’ll have a hard time seeing any proof of that on the screen. Even as Baker’s movies have grown in prestige and star power, the filmmaker’s desire to find non-actors for his leading roles has not diminished. From the 85-year-old Besedka Johnson in Starlet to Mya Taylor in Tangerine, Baker and his casting directors always managed to find unique voices outside of the industry. And now we can add Instagram star Bria Vinaite to the list of amateurs that deliver powerhouse performances in Baker’s films. It really, really shouldn’t be as easy as they make it look.
The Florida Project tells the story of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Vinaite), a mother and daughter who share a single hotel room in a rundown part of Orlando, Florida. Under the watchful eye of Bobby (Willem Dafoe, exuding an empathy that has gone severely underutilized since Oliver Stone’s Platoon), Moonee and Halley scratch out a meager-but-happy existence among the residents of the motel, hustling tourists and exploring the industrial parks and strip-malls of their Orlando community. All of that changes, though, when Moonee forces a rift between Halley and one of her close friends, putting her ability to provide for both of them in jeopardy.
With The Florida Project, Baker continues to shoot his films in cities where poverty is overshadowed by the glamour of the entertainment industry. People come to Los Angeles and Orlando to have their dreams realized; Tangerine‘s Sin-Dee and The Florida Project‘s Moonee live in the areas we drive past or around on our way to bask in the ritz of Hollywood and The Magic Kingdom. For some filmmakers, this might lead to heavy-handed metaphors about wealth inequity or class resentment, but Baker doesn’t see it this way. He simply presents this as the way of life for each of his characters. Moonee knows that her family is different from the ones that her mom hustles – one of Halley’s many forms of income is to sell wholesale perfume in the parking lots of some of Orlando’s chain hotel complexes – but there’s never a sense that she’s missing out. Her world ends far before the other one begins.
To this end, Baker makes it clear that he will not introduce artificial barriers between Moonee’s perspective and the adult world around her. We meet Moonee and her friends as they hock loogies from the second story of an apartment complex onto the car of a complete stranger; when confronted, the group shouts down a shocking string of profanities, calling the woman (and her daughter) everything from a ‘ratchet bitch’ to a ‘stupid thot’ before running laughing from the building. Baker immediately tears away any preconceived notions we may have held about the movie’s ‘preciousness’ before offering us a grounded look at the interplay between environment and behavior.
And once these characters have been freed to occupy a space not typically seen in film, Baker is able to drill down into some of the universal elements of childhood. Hollywood has churned out hundreds of movies where kids spend their summer stomping through the woods behind their house or biking through the suburbs – look no further than this month’s box office smash It to see how the industry preys on our collective nostalgia for an upper-middle-class upbringing – and The Florida Project simply offers a (literal) poor man’s rendition of these memories. Instead of abandoned properties in the woods, Moonee and company explore abandoned planned communities. They hustle ice cream money from tourists and stand their ground when berated by cashiers. They’re happy, even if it’s a happiness that bears little resemblance to the childhood of their audience.
All of this hinges on the two central performances. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but the strength of Brooklynn Prince’s performance is her conscious lack of maturity. Child actors are often lauded when their performances hint at an old soul in a fragile frame; actors like Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment garnered praise early in their careers for roles that conveyed a deep sadness beyond their years. Prince, on the other hand, is allowed to simply be a child. She can certainly be profane and introspective – her comments about a favorite tree that still grows although its “tipped over” is the movie’s message in a nutshell – but she’s an engaged observer of the adult world, not a secret participant. And then there’s Vinaite’s Halley. We never doubt her dedication to her daughter even as she takes up sex work to make ends meet, but The Florida Project also does not judge her or frame her as a tortured soul. This is the only life she’s ever known, and she makes the most of it throughout.
The Florida Project is a film about the moments that make up these characters’ days, and we feel lucky enough to follow alongside them as they explore their world. Baker’s film doesn’t just wear its humanism on its sleeve: its humanism is the sleeve, radiating a warm and compassion for all those who live a life, not unlike Moonee and Halley. There’s something wonderful about one of this year’s first serious Oscar contenders telling a story that could belong to any number of people in this country. Here’s hoping that The Florida Project speaks to everyone who doesn’t often see themselves represented on the screen.