Sean Baker made some waves in the film industry when he released crime comedy Tangerine a couple of years ago, shot entirely on an iPhone. The critical acclaim of the micro-budget marvel helped to springboard the director to his next feature The Florida Project; a mother-daughter drama set in the dishevelled surroundings of Disney World. Taking place at the Magic Castle motel run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the story centres around fun-loving six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends. As they happily run riot around the town, her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) struggles to make ends meet, going to increasingly desperate measures to pay the rent each week.
The filmmaking approach is definitely more conventional than the aforementioned handheld effort, this time shot on 35mm, but there is a rawness and a humanism to the material that makes it almost documentarian in its style. Moonee, along with her friends Scooty and Jancey, goes off exploring around odd pastel coloured buildings that resemble the run-down ruins of a Wes Anderson set, and through their playful escapades the movie masterfully captures the mischievous adventure of childhood. The narrative flows like a summer holiday; wild and sprawling with no strong sense of where one day ends and another begins. Moonee’s innocent yet wondrous outlook on life clashes with the harsh realities that Halley encounters on the margins of society, and this compelling juxtaposition is handled beautifully as the plot slowly creeps towards its emotionally charged final act.
As well as the camera techniques applied, there is a naturalism that comes from the cast as youngsters and newcomers combine somewhat seamlessly with seasoned performers. Vinaite was discovered as an Instagram entrepreneur during the process but shows little sign of inexperience in a tough but tender central role. Her connection with young Brooklynn Prince is very moving, and can switch from hilarious to heart-breaking from one scene to the next. In one particularly powerful moment, Moonee remarks that she ‘can always tell when adults are about to cry’. What initially might seem like a fleeting comment cleverly opens the door to the family’s hardship, and this holds more weight as the story develops. The pair are joined by veteran actor Willem Dafoe who, like his caring character Bobby, plays a crucial supporting role. With few questions asked, he dutifully watches over the residents of the motel with a smile on his face but sadness behind the eyes.
With a striking combo of merriment and misery, Sean Baker successfully builds on his growing reputation with The Florida Project. He shares the screenplay duties with regular collaborator Chris Bergoch and as solid as the script is, it’s his directorial vision that really leaves a lasting impact. The insight given into the poverty-stricken environment his characters inhabit feels guerrilla-like in its explicatory, eye-widening execution, and the masterstroke is in finding unadulterated joy that shines a light in the darkest of places.