Aside from having an exceptional gift for finding beauty in disenfranchised outsider existences, director Sean Baker also has a special feeling for female friendship — tracing the unlikely connection that develops between a porn actress and a lonely octogenarian widow in Starlet; the scrappy loyalty of two transgender prostitutes in Tangerine; and now in The Florida Project, the infectious joy and shared summer adventures of a pair of 6-year-old girls living in neighboring budget motels, who create their own magic kingdom across the poverty line from Walt Disney World, Orlando.
The two sparkling recruits playing those roles, Brooklynn Kimberly Prince and Valeria Cotto, were effortless scene-stealers onstage at the film's official Cannes premiere in the Directors' Fortnight, rocking their formal wear and milking their moment, then two hours later weeping as the end credits rolled and they were showered with thunderous applause. Adorbs.
Never mind that the relationship between their characters, Moonee and Jancey, respectively, is less central than that of Moonee and her volatile 22-year-old mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a wild-child tattoo canvas with a tenuous hold on adulthood, who'll do pretty much anything to scrape together rent. Baker acknowledges Hal Roach's Our Gang series of the 1920s and '30s (aka The Little Rascals) as a key influence, so it's unsurprising that The Florida Project is most captivating when its modern-day versions of those Great Depression urchins are front and center, creating chaos.
In addition to Prince's Moonee and Cotto's Jancey, that irresistible band for a while also includes Christopher Rivera as Scooty and Aiden Malik as Dicky, before they're separated by parental concern in one case and relocation in the other. The exuberant spontaneity of early childhood, the boundless capacity for wonder, the irrelevance of the gender divide and the insatiable appetite for mischief make for a string of scenes of uncommon vitality and humor, especially with precocious Moonee following Mom's badass example and leading the insolent charge.
What's most endearing is that these kids seem entirely untroubled by their disadvantaged situation — until unhappy reality intrudes — and that the movie manages simultaneously to observe them while observing the milieu through their eyes.
Again written by Baker with Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project is overlong and lacks the sustained narrative drive of its two immediate predecessors. But it's nonetheless a fabulous mosaic of one particular pocket of America's invisible homeless population — families living hand-to-mouth in motels originally designed to catch the tourist overspill from the flashy theme-park resorts across town. (The title comes from the original name given to Disneyland's East Coast offshoot plans.)
The proximity of the two worlds, with their vast income disparity, is captured with poignancy in a lovely scene in which Halley hitchhikes down the highway with the two girls in tow, and they celebrate Jancey's birthday by watching the Disney World fireworks from across a swampy field with a communal cupcake. It's also a welcome interlude of quiet in a movie electrified by almost constant noise, whether it's the shrieks of excitable kids, the profane eruptions of adult anger or the steady barrage of trash TV at high volume.
After shooting on iPhones with extraordinary results in Tangerine, Baker switches here to widescreen 35mm, and Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe takes glorious advantage of the bubblegum palette and architectural absurdity of the setting. With its tacky gift outlets (Machine Gun America among them), sundae-shaped ice-cream stands, novelty diners and abandoned condos in sorbet shades, this is a playground for transitory visitors that has become a surreal home to many. It's hard to recall another movie about poverty with so much visual pop.
Halley and Moonee live at the Magic Castle Motel, a sprawling faux-fortress painted a lurid purple, while Jancey lives with her grandmother across the way at the Futureland Inn, where now-retro rocket-ship models flank signage inviting travelers to "Stay in the Future Today."
Marking a first time for Baker of using an established actor in a significant role, Willem Dafoe is terrific as Bobby, the Magic Castle's gruff but kindhearted manager, forever wrestling with maintenance issues and guest infractions while at the same time keeping a protective eye on the brats whose pranks add to his workload. (One scene where he frogmarches a suspected pedo-predator off the property epitomizes the extent to which he serves as a surrogate parent to these undersupervised tykes.) Despite Bobby's efforts, the place is a dump; one funny joke is the distraught state of a Brazilian bride who arrives at the Magic Castle to discover that her groom's online bargain booking is not the Disney honeymoon experience of her dreams.
Halley makes a few bucks by reselling wholesale perfumes to tourists and mostly keeps Moonee fed by sending her to pick up free waffles from Orange World, where Scooty's mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works. The first sign of the snapshot turning darker is when a larkish act of vandalism by the kids has consequences, and unlike self-absorbed Halley, Ashley is observant enough to pick up on Scooty's involvement. As a result, she forbids her son from seeing undisciplined Moonee and severs her friendship with Halley, effectively removing any semi-stabilizing influence from the irresponsible fellow single mother's life.
The loose narrative arc that eventually kicks in follows Halley as she acts out in an increasingly abrasive spiral that alienates others at the motel, finally testing even soft-touch Bobby's willingness to cut her some slack. It's inferred that Halley got fired from her stripper gig for declining to provide customers with optional backroom extras. But almost inevitably, she starts turning tricks in her room and scamming locals, raising serious doubts about her fitness for parenting.
It's in those developments, however, that the limits of using nonprofessional actors are felt. Instagram discovery Vinaite has a marvelous insouciant energy, and she more than looks the part, with a lip-piercing accentuating her surly pout, and hair the color of chemical waste. She's like Riley Keough in American Honey-meets-pre-cleanup Courtney Love. But she's also shrill and grating. Vinaite lacks the nuance as an actor to make the pathos real, so her screaming rants and destructive explosions tend to come off like the playacting tantrums of reality TV. Unskilled kids can get away with a lot on-camera, because in a sense they're always performing, plus Baker has found disarming naturals. But too often, Vinaite's self-consciousness shows.
What saves the movie's sobering latter developments, giving it an emotional wallop that overrides the flaws, is partly the sadness playing across Dafoe's face as Bobby watches from the sidelines. Even more so, the heart-wrenching realization of Moonee that her mother's shortcomings this time will have repercussions for both of them. Baker never exploits the situation by keeping the camera on Prince's face more than necessary — just enough to show the confusion and fear of a child threatened with separation from her imperfect protector.
If the ending feels abrupt, it's also tender in that it sends Moonee running to Jancey for support. Baker captures their possibly imaginary flight together to a magical destination via a brief burst of guerilla-style filming. And that stylistic switch is as much a part of the director's content-dictated aesthetic as the limpid compositions and singing colors that infuse this movie about low-rent lives with such visual richness.
Production companies: June Pictures, Cre Film, Freestyle Pictures Company
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Kimberley Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Mela Murder, Aiden Malik, Josie Olivo, Sandy Kane, Macon Blair
Director: Sean Baker
Screenwriters: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Producers: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Shih-Ching Tsou, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Kevin Chinoy, Francesca Silvestri
Executive producers: Darren Dean, Elayne Schneiderman Schmidt
Director of photography: Alexis Zabe
Production designer: Stephonik Youth
Costume designer: Fernando A. Rodriguez
Editor: Sean Baker
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)
Sales: Protagonist Pictures