Sean Baker (Tangerine) has rocketed in a few years from the guy who shot a movie on an iPhone to a guy who will probably earn a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. He deserves it. He has committed himself to telling naturalistic stories about America’s down and out- the poor, the impoverished, the hustlers, the have-nots. But unlike Hollywood often does, he sidesteps their tendency towards miserablism. His subjects, and therefore his movies, are absolutely full of life. Hell, the opening credits song for his latest, The Florida Project, is “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang.
I was only able to make this one film today, but it will probably end up being the best film I see at the festival. We are introduced at the start to the super fun time summer world of six year old Moonee (newcomer and heart-stealer Brooklynn Prince) and her friends. She lives in an extended stay hotel called The Magic Castle (a real place that is open for business- “you can Yelp it,” Baker said during a Q&A) just outside of Disney World. The hotel is home mostly to poor families who can’t afford a more permanent residency. She shares a room with her young mother Halley (also-newcomer Bria Vinaite) and has a blast causing mischief, cussing, making new friends, spilling ice cream on lobby floors and generally testing the limits of any situation she finds herself in.
Everyone is looked after by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the benevolent hotel manager who is 110% kinder than he has to be in his profession. He signed up for this job to run a business- but he is more like an affordable housing coordinator. He is also a guardian, a man who knows everybody, and someone who does his best to make life a little easier for his guests. Somehow though, the movie is really not about him. It so easily could have been- but Baker always brings the camera back on Moonee and Halley. Halley is a mess of a young mother- smoking blunts, cussing up a storm, soliciting on private property by selling wholesale perfume, and eventually getting into some extralegal work. We know nothing of her background, where she comes from, or why she is the way she is. The same goes for just about every character in this film. What little exposition there is is usually filled in in a background phone call while the camera is focused on something more fun, like a kid licking an ice cream cone.
The Florida Project joins recent films like American Honey, Heaven Knows What, and Good Time in a new type of cinema that looks at class inequality in modern day America- and serves as a damning indictment of late capitalism. It is expensive to be poor- the amount of money it costs to stay in this hotel room each month is more than I pay per month in rent- and I have a 40 hour/week job. Yet when Halley makes moves to try and “pull herself up by her bootstraps,” so to speak, she risks arrest. The movie is sympathetic towards her but makes it clear that she is making choices. There are other choices she could make- and we see similar characters making smarter ones than she does. Yet she is a product of her environment. A single mother in her twenties with no family support- the lord only knows what kind of traumatic experiences led her to where she is today. Yet Baker wisely shifts the focus away from this, to show us who she is today. She is extremely likable even if we don’t approve of everything that she does.
The broken world of adulthood operates above the ground level where most of the film takes place- from the perspective of Moonee and her friends. To them, this is the only life they have ever known. And they are having an absolute blast. Their joy, wisecracks and sassy attitudes permeate the film with the kind of warmth only matched by the lavender paint job on The Magic Castle.
There is a beautiful scene in the middle of the film where Halley and Moonee take her friend Jansey (adorable little Valeria Cotto) to go see the Disneyworld fireworks on her birthday. Of course, they don’t go in the park- they go to a tiny hillside that Halley knows about. Where it’s dark and the only light is made by the fireworks in the sky. In a way it seems way better- and cheaper- than seeing them from inside Disney World. You get to have a little space, be with the people you love, and feel like this moment is happening just for you. Halley makes it fun for Jansey, as if she had made the fireworks happen- and why not believe it. There is so much magic and imagination in childhood, there is no reason to think you didn’t somehow will the fireworks into going off. That’s the kind of wonder that The Florida Project makes you feel in spades. It is definitely one of the best films of the year.
Next up: The Square, Lady Bird