A couple years ago, I sat in a bar debriefing with a friend after the Australian premiere of Tangerine. The film, from up-and-coming director Sean Baker, told the story of a pair of trans sex workers on Christmas Eve in California. While it became a topic of conversation for its production methods – Baker famously shot the film entirely on iPhones – I was enamoured of its pseudo-screwball humour, the warm, winning way it regarded its protagonists, and the incredible performance of Mya Taylor. My friend was less excited; to paraphrase, he found the way it framed its trans characters as tokenistic. I remember him feeling that Baker had a responsibility to say something more substantive about such characters.
I assume that this friend would be similarly unimpressed by Baker’s latest film, The Florida Project. Here, the director trades iPhone fuzziness for sumptuous 35mm, colour-graded photography, but maintains his focus on the marginalised minorities of America. The Florida Project centres on the Florida poor. Specifically, twenty-something single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Halley scrapes together enough selling knock-off perform to tourists in town for Disney World, but the camera prefers to adopt the perspective of her daughter. Moonee spends her days spitting on cars, setting fires and generally getting up to mischief in lieu of school (about which she only seems to understand the concept of ‘recess’).
For those who found Tangerine irresponsible, perhaps The Florida Project’s representation of some of the challenges of living in poverty – whether it’s resorting to sex work or dealing with Child Protective Services – will suffice. But Baker’s goal here is not to descend into miserabilia. Like the mauve paint that engulfs the ‘Magic Castle’ setting – the name of the motel in which Halley and Moonee reside – The Florida Project is a colourful film, spinning its subject matter off into joyful vignettes imbued with the playful innocence of childhood. Like Tangerine, this is a fun film, a film that carries you along with it and puts a smile on your face as often as it tugs on your heartstrings.
Perspective is everything here; if Baker had told this story exclusively from the perspective of Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), this would be a much grimmer tale (indeed, when the film strays too long from Moonee’s perspective, it loses some of its pizazz). What sets Baker’s storytelling apart – here, and in Tangerine and Starlet – is this kind of radical sympathy, where he offers clear-eyed portraits of the kind of people invariably portrayed as pitiful wretches or villains. He sees them as people: flawed, imperfect, cruel, but also wonderful; vibrant.
That’s enabled in large part by his actors. There’s some kind of wonderful alchemy Baker finds with these people, a mix of professionals and non-professionals. Dafoe and Vinaite alike deliver stunning performances that are at once naturalistic and larger than the life. While Dafoe seems destined to pick up a long-overdue statuette for his work here, it’s Prince who’s the real standout for me. She’s cherubic and energetic but also able to convey the underlying of her circumstances in a way that 26 year old actors might struggle with. It’s a delightful performance; one that’s impossible to forget, and one that ensures the film’s success.
The film’s conclusion – shot, guerrilla-style, around Disney World – has proven divisive. For me, it’s hard to imagine The Florida Project ending any other way. Disney World looms large throughout the film, whether it’s on screen – its fireworks illuminating the night sky, or a set of entry passes burgled from a unwitting john (Macon Blair) – or off, where the weight of its industry is ever-present. The gulf between Disney World and the Magic Castle is the story Baker is telling, the story of a country increasingly infantilised socially and economically.
That’s a more coherent message than Tangerine, which danced around notions of family (accentuated by its Christmas setting) but didn’t necessarily cohere in the same way. The Florida Project’s neo-Dickensian vibe doesn’t shove its politics in your face; it wants to open a window into this world, not press your face up against it. This isn’t a statement – it’s a story, but one with a sharp-edged razorblades lurking amongst the candy-coloured comedy.