Sean Baker built his reputation as an adventurous indie filmmaker when he shot his film Tangerine about two transgender hookers on a mobile phone. His latest, much lauded The Florida Project is not so shoe-string, but the filmmaker’s heart is still with the America of misfits and strugglers who are seldom treated in cinema with such affection. Willem Dafoe is the star on board among non-professional actors, but little Brooklynn Kimberly Prince is the scene-stealer, giving the kind of utterly natural performance that must have been the director’s delight. The film is set in and around the seedier part of Orlando, under the shadow of the great theme park which represents American enterprise and prosperity.
Moonee (Price) lives with her too-young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who is not exactly a picture of ideal parenting — though Baker is not judgmental. Over the summer, Moonee runs wild with her energetic kiddie gang of Jancey (Valeria Cotto), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik). The are happy in their poverty and find ways to celebrate childhood in little ways like a heartfelt birthday with a cupcake. Their surroundings are so cheerfully bright and surreal that their lack of money does not seem to be such a big problem to the kids. Nor does their life in rundown motels with names like Magic Castle and Futureland seem abnormal.
Dafoe, who is usually cast in negative parts, plays with surprising warmth, Bobby, the benign and harried manager, of Magic Castle, who ends up keeping an eye on the cheeky bunch of kids.
This kind of take-life-as-it comes volatility on Halley’s part cannot be without repercussions and darkness descends eventually, which is heart-breaking. The film concentrates more on the characters than on plot and Baker observes the lives he has given them with sympathy, even though Halley is not too likeable.
In the end Baker, wakes up those who have bought into the American Dream, but also leaves the audience curious about how these desperate lives will play out in the future.