If you told me you could make a modern Christmas classic largely set outside a doughnut shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, centered on transgender prostitutes and shot on iPhones, I wouldn't have believed you. But Sean Baker follows that unlikely 2015 triumph, "Tangerine," with "The Florida Project," another raucous portrait of a community on the margins. (It's a recurring subject for him: His 2012 film "Starlet" dealt obliquely with the Los Angeles porn world.)
"The Florida Project," which had its premiere today in Directors' Fortnight, may be his most potent match yet of setting and subject. The movie is set in and around the Magic Castle Motel, a seedy motor lodge on the outskirts of Disney World. The motel's residents live in chronic semi-homelessness in the shadow of what—as Baker noted at the Q&A—is supposed to be the "most magical place on earth." (A honeymooning couple from Brazil are dismayed when they realize where they've booked. The wife calls it a "gypsy project" for poor people.)
For six-year-old Moonee (the exuberant Brooklynn Kimberly Prince, in a star-making, movie-stealing performance), the motel and its surroundings are an idyllic and largely consequence-free summer playland. She has the run of the place with her neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who's just moved into the motel next door. Moonee and Scooty meet her when she helps them clean up after the spitting contest they've held over Jancey's mother's car.
Moonee knows all the rooms where she isn't supposed to go (but goes anyway) and a nearby soft-serve place where they can get "free" ice cream (by cadging money off other customers). Baker mostly commits to the child's-eye perspective, which makes "The Florida Project" a surprisingly joyous film; it devotes long stretches to what often looks like improvised goofing around. (There's maybe a bit too much of this: Baker served as his own editor, and the movie grows redundant as it nears the two-hour mark.) But even in the lighthearted atmosphere, there are genuinely disturbing moments, as when the kids start a fire at the "abandoneds," empty homes in the area. As the children wander along highways unsupervised, it's a relief to realize that they had the filmmakers as chaperones.
Sympathetic but not infinitely patient, the motel's manager (Willem Dafoe) not only has to deal with grounds issues like bedbugs but also serves as an informal mediator among feuding residents, some of whom are arrested regularly or who struggle to pay the rent. For Moonee's mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who is scarcely more responsible than Moonee and whose room, we eventually discover, is getting regular visits from "friends," the prospect of intervention from DCF, the acronym the movie casually uses to refer to Florida's family and child services department, is never far away.
"The Florida Project," like "Tangerine," is a high-wire act that balances pathos, farce, and political commentary without ever losing control of its tone. Baker, who wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, has a knack for finding the beauty in some of America's biggest eyesore landscapes, and he gives his scenes a spontaneous, almost documentary-like quality belied by the evident care put into every Steadicam shot. He's also an adroit director of nonprofessionals, particularly the children here, who are uncommonly charismatic. Just because Moonee thinks she's playing doesn't mean the stakes aren't real.
(Photo Credit: Marc Schmidt).