For anyone lamenting the political reticence of much of American independent filmmaking, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project—the consensus favorite of this year’s Directors’ Fortnight Program at Cannes—provides a joyous, resounding reply. A trio of rambunctious children, led by eight-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), introduce us to the film’s titular setting: a cheap motel just on the outskirts of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Spurred by the heat and boredom of summer, the kids explore their home’s vibrant, lavender-tinged hallways and the surrounding verdant spaces, revealing a place of everyday wonderment and magic. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe’s stern, but good-hearted caretaker presides over this kingdom of sorts, looking after his tenants (most of whom are scraping to get by) and fixing whatever inevitably goes wrong. Baker imbues all this with the coruscating energy of his breakout film, Tangerine—though that film’s aggressive central duo is here replaced by the irresistible charm of Moonee and her temperamental mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).
As a portrait of life on the margins, The Florida Project is effortlessly evocative, equally attuned to the enchantment of childhood and the bitter realities of the adult world. Although there’s an overarching trajectory to the film, it is, for the most part, a freewheeling, beguilingly plotless affair. Rather than assume a grand importance, Baker builds The Florida Project in sharp, lived-in detail and flashes of vibrant local color. Imagine, say, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s tenement fictions (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius), but refracted through Baker’s warm, empathetic, and uniquely American sensibility. The giddy energy of the film can sometimes be overpowering; in particular, its humor too often leans on the kids’ irreverent antics and casual profanity. But there’s a real, world-weary sadness that seeps into the margins of Baker’s fulsome vision. Stories build and intersect within the space of that single motel; entire histories are glimpsed in brief moments of silence. In sum, it’s a snapshot of liminal existence captured without a shred of condescension—the film that American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s misguided road-trip romp from last year, should’ve been. At first glance, The Florida Project’s last scene—a full-blown, whiplash-inducing retreat into obvious fantasy—may seem similarly misguided, as if Baker finally gave in to the kind of manufactured “magic” that the rest of the film had so nimbly avoided. But step back, and that sequence becomes tinged with self-aware desperation.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 1.