Following the stir caused by Sean Baker’s chaotically impressive, iPhone-shot Tangerine, a follow-up was hotly anticipated and solidifies the young talent as a figure to watch with The Florida Project.
Following a group of kids living in real life resorts just outside of Disney World, Florida, Baker’s most ambitious work yet depicts an impoverished world on the geographical precipice of flourishing capitalism. Visual splendour, lethargic pace and blooming, lazy lens flares cement The Florida Project amongst the ranks of Call Me By Your Name and American Honey; films that should have been released in the summer but didn’t in fear of being overshadowed by superhero movies.
Led by enigmatic, loudmouthed Moonee (Brooklyn Prince), the young children exhibit a paradoxical freedom granted to them by the remote poverty and cramped residency of the film’s setting. Impressively natural and winning, their improvisational performances allow them to spit at cars, beg for money, harass residents and cause charming mayhem and unwitting chaos.
Though Willem Dafoe may stick out like a sore thumb amongst a cast of real residents and fresh faces (small performances from Caleb Landry Jones and Macon Blair aside), the adult performances, too, never stray into the theatrical and maintain a grimy sense of realism throughout.
Baker’s camera is as playful and inquisitive as the children. The setting a visually scrumptious afterthought, the focus here is tracking shots, behind or aligned with the characters at all times to pry into their lives. Even stationary landscape shots are usually punctuated with the silhouette in the fore or middle ground, constructing the forced intimacy that arrives with conditions this romantically squalid.
Framed like a fantasy film, a Carroll-esque exploration of sound, food, colours and people, a frequently absent narrative follows a dream of poverty, never straying away from the harsh reality but admitting the layabout easiness of a school holiday for disadvantaged kids.
Food here is especially crucial as both a currency and agent. Food is shared, stolen or given away as visual shorthand for poverty, but also devoured in heaps, greasy polystyrene trays and melting ice cream cones to make connections, and destroyed to break them. A solitary ice cream for three becomes a throughline symbol for a developing friendship quickly, and takes on new meaning when Moonee’s equally abrasive mother, Hayley, shares pizza with her daughter, or a soda. Luxury is scarce in the shadow of the happiest place on Earth.
The editing remains steadfastly deliberate, despite the plot feeling, at some points, bare. Dramatic moments are invariably punctuated by hard cuts to an irrelevant scene of short vignette to tantalisingly and gradually build tension, each scene still holding the gravity of a potentially seedy underbelly. It really shows that Baker edited his own film, a different party maybe being misled by the idleness of the narrative.
Willem Dafoe’s manager, Bobby, reveals a patch of this underbelly when he chases an old man being a little too friendly with the resident kids of his property in one of the film’s best and more stirring sequences. Standing out as the only big name, Dafoe lends his skills as a known character actor to his benefit as the reluctant overseer and paternal figure to many of the guests. Bobby matches the intense rage and scrap manifested in the downtrodden resident with an intensity of his own, many of the film’s more dramatic moments and sincere human connections beginning with a knock on the door from the manager.
Those not familiar with Baker may be put off by the last shots of the film, a shift in perspective and camera that certainly jarred with many of the audience in my screening. A necessary migration from the dreary outskirts into the warm embrace of the park itself, the filmmakers shot this on an iPhone guerrilla style, without permission from Disney to create a more tactile escape into the real world that’s still blinded by fantasy.
Whereas Tangerine’s smartphone cinematography grounds the film in objectivity, Florida Project’s short, renegade camera moment is accompanied by the only instance of orchestral score to transcend the boundaries of poverty cinema into fantastical realism; a desolate landscape tempted by the looming castle of Disney, only reached, temporarily in the closing seconds.