You could be forgiven for thinking that filmmaker Sean Baker’s last two feature projects smack of gimmickry. After all, his 2015 release “Tangerine” was famously shot on an iPhone equipped with a special lens. And his new film, “The Florida Project,” follows a meandering storyline that is conveyed primarily through the eyes of the children who reside in a Kissimmee, Florida, budget motel.
Baker’s work, though, rises far above mere gimmickry. “Tangerine” is a surprisingly poignant study of the transgender characters who live on, and off, the brightly lit streets of Los Angeles. And “The Florida Project” uses the very innocence of childhood as a backdrop to gauge the desperation of the adults whose job it is to raise them.
Both films, then, grasp for greater meaning by detailing the difficult lives of those who exist on the hard edge of the American dream. And in both, Baker’s grasp is as great as it is assured.
“The Florida Project” revolves around 6-year-old Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince). Moonee lives with her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), in a motel, garishly painted purple and called, somewhat ironically, the Magic Castle.
Run by Bobby (played by Willem Dafoe in a career-defining role), this Magic Castle is the kind of place that attracts people on the brink of homelessness, people who struggle to pay week to week by working at service jobs. Halley, whose defensive attitude may be a reflection of her hopelessness but certainly doesn’t work in her favor, hustles for every buck she can – mostly, but not exclusively, by obtaining things on the cheap, bottles of perfume for example, and selling them to tourists for whatever prices she can get.
Moonee, meanwhile, when she isn’t accompanying her mother, roams over the motel grounds, getting into the kinds of trouble that seem to come naturally to children left to run wild. With her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), she puts a dead fish in the motel swimming pool (“We were trying to get it back alive,” she says), she spits on a neighbor’s car, she cages quarters from patrons at a nearby ice-cream shop, she makes fun of an elderly motel guest who likes to sunbathe in the nude. Mostly, she makes life difficult for Bobby, a well-meaning guy who is far nicer – and protective of both the motel’s children and their parents – than he has any obligation to be.
Throughout “The Florida Project,” which Baker directed from a script he co-wrote with Chris Bergoch, the young actress Prince capably captures Moonee’s sense of play, which comes across as her childish attempt to explore, and exert some control over, a world that clearly confounds her mother. It is only when she goes too far that she begins to discover the kinds of societal limits that Hallee should have been teaching her all along.
That discovery comes slowly, but inexorably, and in Baker’s talented hands, ends up feeling – at the film’s end – both like an act of love … and a punch to the heart.