Keep on Running
By Michael Koresky

The Florida Project
Dir. Sean Baker, U.S., A24

Film is such a constant in our lives that it’s easy to forget what a strange medium it is. Simply by training a camera on people you can ennoble them, or you can disparage them; you can grant them individuality or take away their agency. Similarly, as audience members, by looking at someone captured onscreen, you can judge or embrace them, but either way you’re presuming a certain amount of knowledge about them. A movie doesn’t have to explicitly interrogate the psychology of its characters because through some alchemical mystery the camera confers inquiry. This is as true of fiction as nonfiction, which is one of the reasons why the distinction between the two can be—and should be—so blurred. Sean Baker’s scripted yet loose The Florida Project, which has been praised for the way its camera seems to so spontaneously capture its characters and environs, is a provocative, sometimes thorny film for these reasons. Plowing ahead with abandon, like the kids who scamper their way through it, The Florida Project is a snapshot portrait of Americans living on the margins that has no time for psychologizing.

Set during one summer in and around a budget motel called the Magic Castle, situated on the depressed outskirts of Orlando’s Disney World, Baker’s film is one of discomfiting contrasts. In this place of concrete and telephone wires, transients subsisting on very little and tourists lost on the way to the nearby theme park, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) runs amok with a shifting group of friends and gets into trouble with the motel’s usually patient manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), while being occasionally looked after by her very young, alternately lackadaisical and ferocious mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley and Moonee live week to week in the Magic Castle, emotionally beholden to no one but themselves, barely making rent and always on the verge of being kicked out, released into certain homelessness. The disconnect between the film’s liberated shooting and editing style and the social entrapment actually experienced by its characters gives The Florida Project its indeterminate emotional tenor and ungainly shape. It starts with Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” the film’s titles splashed against the bright lavender-painted cement of the motel, and how different viewers might interpret that choice of song could predict how they’ll respond to the film entire.

Of one thing there’s no doubt: the approach taken by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe—filming on 35mm where Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, was shot on an iPhone—makes for an extraordinary combination of color-saturated stylization and extemporaneous verisimilitude. Especially considering the film is often fueled by the energy of scampering, screaming children, the harnessing of unwieldy elements represents a high level of cinematic achievement—the camera always manages to be in the right place at the right time, while also showing us things in a distinct, askew manner, conveying a compelling heightened reality. The easy, dreamy glide of the Steadicam prowling or racing to catch up with the kids combined with those Central Florida bursts of blue, purple, and orange, all set against the reality of encroaching financial destitution, contributes to an overall sense of displacement, fantasy teetering on the edge of collapse.

That strange mix of elation and deterioration that gives the film its dynamism is also what makes The Florida Project such a confounding, almost Rorschach-like experience. As such films as Beasts of the Southern Wild expressed and exploited, when depicting children there’s a fine line between free spirit and lost soul, and it can occasionally register as simplistic to use kiddie innocence to prop up a story of genuine economic desperation. While it’s refreshing to see a film that deals with American poverty yet has no interest in wallowing in miserablism, Baker often swings far in the other direction, slathering layers of adorability over nearly everything little Moonee, Scooty (her downstairs pal), and her other friends do, whether it’s screaming “Bitch!” and “You are shit!” while spitting on a woman’s car or starting a destructive fire at a nearby abandoned building. Little Brooklynn Prince is undeniably affecting, swerving between naturalism and more clearly rehearsed kid acting (she’s a very talented sobber, as the climax proves), but her precocity is so foregrounded that the film often seems most enamored of her as a performer.

As Halley, Bria Vinaite is an even trickier proposition. A nonprofessional Baker discovered from Instagram videos, Vinaite careens through the film with abandon, sassing and sneering at nearly everyone who comes in her path. Fiercely protective of Moonee, Halley barely scrapes by, selling wholesale perfume and stolen Disney World passes to unsuspecting travelers off Rte. 92 (and as it turns out, she might be selling more to out-of-towners than just material goods). She feuds violently with friends-turned-enemies, and regularly lashes out at beleaguered Bobby when he comes calling for the weekly rent—rarely seeming to appreciate that he is her only real defender. With her piercings, dyed-green hair, and torso-spanning rose tattoos, Vinaite has an unusual presence and a forthright amateurishness that becomes part of the charm. Yet, as with Prince, the film is so captivated by this unseasoned, fetishized performer (in interviews, Baker has called her a “firecracker” and has extolled her “street smarts”) that she nearly swallows the film whole. Since Halley and Moonee are both essentially children, this leveling does make conceptual sense, at least. On the other hand, Dafoe stands apart, unavoidably, from the rest of the cast, yet he savvily underplays enough to feel like part of the overall scenery, a remarkable job of not calling attention to himself while also never letting the audience forget who the real professional is. Whether taking care of bed-bugged mattresses, reprimanding a topless, middle-aged sunbather at the pool, or protecting the kids from a loitering pederast, Bobby is casually in charge, as is Dafoe.

The general preciousness of The Florida Project serves to mask, or at least distract from, the emotional toll living in such dire straits has on the people in the motel. This is a structural choice: when there is an outpouring of emotion at the end, it feels not only earned but inevitable. Rather than continue this sudden yank back to reality, however, Baker sends his little protagonist into a deeper world of fantasy. The decision to double down on the film’s already latent tension between authenticity and delusion doesn’t feel conceptually off, but may prove divisive to viewers, as it comes across as facile, or at least too simple, a final refuge for characters already given no past or future. As it should be, it’s left up to the viewer to decide what to make of Moonee and Halley and what will happen to them once they escape the camera’s curious eye.