The magic kingdom is just down the road but a million miles away in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a dreamily impressionistic slice of vérité set in a Sunshine State of ragged palm trees, cracked asphalt, and shabby motels in glaring shades of melted sherbet.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in one of those rundown pay-by-the-week complexes with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a volatile, heavily tattooed 22-year-old hardly capable of looking after herself. Moonee makes her own fun anyway; she’s a tough, tiny firecracker, corralling other local kids into mischief that ranges from Our Gang innocence (wheedling ice cream money from strangers, holding spitting contests on car windshields) to actual felonies (setting fires in abandoned houses). And because Halley is usually too loaded or distracted to care, let alone supervise, most days the motel’s long-suffering manager (Willem Dafoe) ends up parenting by default.
Baker, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has built a mini oeuvre around characters on the fringes, from the lonely porn stars and senior citizens of 2012’s Starlet to the 2015 festival sensation Tangerine, shot on an iPhone and starring two unknown trans actresses. Florida introduces a new cute factor into his work: These kids, scrappy and funny and smart, are the kind who say the darndest things, and it’s a credit to either the writing or the casting (or both) that many of their best lines don’t even feel scripted.
But it’s also not hard to see that there’s nothing sweet about Moonee’s prospects; as Halley’s emotional and financial situation slides into the red, so does their already tenuous existence. Dafoe’s sensitive performance anchors the movie’s slippery adult world, and Baker builds a cinematic mood beautifully; the strip malls and swampland and buzzing cicadas on screen feel as real and tactile as the theater seat beneath you. Once he establishes it, though, he doesn’t seem to quite know where to take it, and the story begins to feel more like a series of strung-together anecdotes: an intriguing project, incomplete. B