Sean Baker made his name with the 2015 feature, Tangerine, the story of two transgender prostitutes on Sunset Boulevard, which he famously shot on an iPhone. This time, The Florida Project takes him to the Sunshine State; there’s no iPhone – it’s all filmed on traditional 35mm – and he had a genuine star, in the shape of Willem Dafoe. But his focus is once again people on the fringes, here living in (real) shabby motels in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Co-written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, the story has two strands. Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a 6 year-old living in the Magic Castle, a seen-better-days purple-coloured motel that once upon a time housed tourists on their way to the Disney theme park. Together with her new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), they spend their days harassing residents (they’re first seen spitting from a balcony) and troubling Bobby (David), the kindly motel manager.
In sharp contrast is Moonee’s tattoo-clad mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), barely out of her teens and living hand to mouth, as she scams tourists and sells her body for sex. For all the exuberance of the children’s adventures, such uncomfortable realities frequently crash into the narrative. At one point, Bobby beats on an aged man scoping the grounds, the unspoken understanding being that he’s a paedophile. It’s an oddly sinister moment, not exactly Disney wholesome.
As he’s already shown in Tangerine and his earlier films Starlet (2012) and Prince of Broadway (2008), Baker has an uncanny ability to draw credible performances from non-professionals. Vinaite, who was cast after Baker encountered her Instagram profile, is sensational, offering a real heart-on-the-sleeve turn as a misguided mother. Likewise, Prince is a rough diamond, destined to go down in the pantheon of great child performers.
With a naturalistic Dafoe perfectly fitting alongside these movie newcomers – and how many movie stars can manage that? – The Florida Project builds from colourful and casual towards quietly harrowing in the final reel. Amid all the tears and tantrums, it’s a distinct study of recession-era America, of the divide between rich and poor – so vividly displayed here as wealthy tourists make their way to the magical corporate kingdom next door where all your dreams come true.
The Florida Project opens in cinemas on 10 November. For more information, visit: www.altitudefilment.com
1. Still from The Florida Project.