Florida Project: Sean Baker’s Followup to Tangerine, Starring Willem Dafoe

A highlight of the Directors Fortnight, the bolder and more innovative sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival, The Florida Project is Sean Baker’s eagerly-awaited follow up to Tangerine, the ultra-modest feature that put him on the international cinema map.

Centering on a precocious girl (Brooklynn Prince), during one eventful summer, this fifth feature boasts Baker’s biggest budget to date, and an ensemble cast that includes a discovery of a six year old girl, some unprofessional actors, and also a vet performer like Willem Dafoe.

Life Around the Corner of Disney World

Taking its title from Disney’s working name for Disney World in Florida, this fascinating feature is full of ironies, not least because of the poor and destitute life that its characters live.  The region neighbors the theme park of the giant corporation, which was constructed for escapist amusement—and maximum capitalist profit.

A humanist, who refuses to judge his screen persona, Baker is aware of those ironies but he does not ask for pity or even sympathy for his characters. Instead, he presents in a realistic manner the kind of lifestyles seldom depicted in mainstream Hollywood movies.

The individuals in the film live in The Magic Castle and Future Land, two run-down motels near Disney World. The sites are garishly painted and so named in order to cash in on the famous nearby touristic spot.

Baker is not the first indie filmmaker to understand the importance of having children as protagonists–it’s a tradition that hails back to Italian neo-realism (De Sica) and French new wave (Truffaut).

In this tale, he shows the events largely from the point of view of a young,  perceptive girl named Moonee, played vibrantly by newcomer Brooklyn Prince.

The Florida Project represents a point of departure for Baker in many significant ways.  His last two films, Starlet in 2012, and Tangerine in 2015, the groundbreaking, iPhone-shot transgender tale, were features distinctly rooted and necessarily shot in their California milieus.

Though shot on 35mm, The Florida Project still employs the guerrilla filmmaking used on Tangerine. However, Baker says that the reason he went with the “more controlled, classical feel of 35mm,” is because “I was trying to tell the story through the eyes of a 6-year-old.  And her world is always somewhat candy-coated, so I wanted it to have an extra gloss, and for the film to be really rich.”

Baker sees the benefits and beauty of using both digital and 35mm, though he prefers celluloid because digital “doesn’t give you that organic quality that celluloid brings.”

As for casting, with few exceptions (Dafoe), Baker opted for using locals residents, based on his firm conviction: “I didn’t want to just bring in a bunch of outsiders, Los Angeles people, to play Floridians.”

He met Brooklynn Prince, who is 6, in a casting call: “She came in from Orlando, and within seconds, we knew she was our lead.”  He also feels Brookline possesses the potential of becoming a star, but for now he describes her as the “best child actor he had ever seen.”

Tangerine elevated realism to a kind of pop vérité—that feature was at once a movie and a cultural phenomenon.  “I really loved discovering that style, so I wanted to continue exploring it. Being in the Floridian environment, there’s a sort of style that’s imposed on you. We all embraced those Floridian colors in order to achieve hyper-reality to everything.”

The ultra-bright colors offer sharp contrast with the darker and gloomier aspects of the characters’ lives; they are poor and homeless. In the film’s more upsetting moments, we observe the characters’ sadder realities—they are the victims of unbridled and greedy capitalism.

She is not the sole persona. We also meet her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), a loud, unruly, not exactly a model of parenthood but full of heart and love woman. And there is the hotel manager, Bobby (Dafoe), who becomes sort of a saintly protective figure.

Early on, Bobby defuses a fight, and later obeys the owner’s demands by keeping Halley in line.  When a child molester shows up, he quickly sends him away. In one amusing scene, a couple of honeymooners arrive, thinking they’re booked into a Disney hotel, only to later realize their mistake.

Visually, too, the film’s focus is narrow—by design. Baker and his cinematographer, Alexis Zabe, place the camera at Moonee’s height, emphasizing authenticity, which contributes to the overall emotional impact.

Moonee and her mother’s routine activities engage our attention because their characters are so vividly drawn and realistically played.  Moonee and her pals have their access to their own theme park, their playground. It is their sense of wonder and ability to find magic and mischief—experimenting with recreational arson–in what’s otherwise a bleak reality, which gives the film injection of energy and much necessary sense of joy.

Though different in subject and style, The Florida Project, like Tangerine before it, deals with marginal, underprivileged characters, depicted from the inside with vibrant energy and candy color (pink pastel).

Thrilling with its striking sun-blasted visuals, and heartbreaking in its emotional (but unsentimental) tone, The Florida Project is a major contribution to the greatest cinematic portrayals of childhood.