TIFF Review: Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’ is one of the year’s best films

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You can tell from the first few minutes of director Sean Baker’s new film, The Florida Project (named after Walt Disney’s initial codename for what would become Disney World), that it’s going to be something special.

Baker takes one of the most overplayed and overwrought music cues in cinema history — Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” — and makes his movie feel gorgeously jovial. It also helps that it’s kind of a silly pun, given how close Orlando, where this film is set, is to Celebration on the map, and the film’s defined by its presence. It, too, features a Magic Castle (the week-to-week hotel in which all the characters live), and a young girl trapped in poor circumstances. That girl is named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in the building with her mother (Bria Vinaite), and she lives her life out on the Orlando streets to the fullest each summer day that passes by. Yet there aren’t any fairy godmothers here (unless you’re willing to count Willem Dafoe’s building manager as a protector) to whisk her away to other lands and different castles, just the amount of imagination and precocious optimism of a child trapped in circumstances that she can’t fully comprehend. It’s a truly lovely film, filled to the brim with pitch-perfect performances, and it’ll break your heart into a million pieces.

Baker rarely leaves Moonee’s perspective, though occasionally he’ll follow around her mother to fill in some essential information to the viewer about their situation. This endows the film with a gorgeous innocence, and helps to smooth over much of the sadness that envelops much of this story. She’s happily living the only life she knows, in the best way that she possibly can, and god is it utterly fucking painful to watch when reality starts to intrude in on their day-to-day lives.

It goes without saying that Prince is a revelation, precocious and tough and silly, evocative of the best child performances in cinema history while she’s doing her own thing. Her playtime adventures are gruff and fun in the way that “free-range” playtime is often idealized as and remembered by those who got to truly experience it, but tempered with the occasional dark reminder that things are kind of shit at home (when Moonee and her friend Jancey observe a rainbow, they talk about finding the leprechaun at the end of it and beating him up to steal his gold).

Vinate, as well, is excellent here as Moonee’s mother, Hailey, full of raw love and rage barely simmering beneath her surface, willing to do whatever the hell it takes to keep her daughter close and to keep them afloat for just another week. Her sadness metastasizes into anger, though never at her daughter, and her desperation is just heartbreaking — she can’t get a job at any of the places on the strip where she lives and was fired from her last job as a stripper — and so she lives under the constant threat of her daughter being ripped away from her. And she makes some terrible choices over the film, but each is understandable from her perspective, and that only adds to the heartbreak. It’s fertile ground for drama, and you may have seen this story before, but never quite like this.

What’s totally overwhelming about The Florida Project and arguably the rest of Baker’s filmography (sans his stint as a writer and director on Fox’s Greg the Bunny) is his utterly radical empathy for our society’s most concealed and shat-upon populaces. He captures so much here in the margins: The struggles of raising a child with little-to-no-income the fear of being thrown out of the only home they’ve known, the cruelty of residency laws — ones that require week-to-week tenants to clear out their rooms and stay in another hotel at least once a month — and the difficulty of starting over after a stint in prison. He makes you feel every single pang of sadness, though it never can overwhelm the youthful spirit at the film’s core, and his empathy knows no bounds; he feels just as much for Dafoe as anyone else, and he gives us sly hints about the man’s past in his interactions with his son (Caleb Landry Jones, for once not playing a despicable loser), though his weathered face tells you really all that you need to know. He’s presented as a good man kicking against the pricks of his job’s occasional cruelties. It is a bravura turn by him, one that feels separate from so much of his filmography, as his kindness and warmth radiates off the screen. You can tell how much he loves his tenants even though he’s required to clean up after them and police them, but he cares deeply about all of them. It’s just beautiful work from him, so heartfelt and tragic.

Shot on 35mm by up-and-coming cinematographer Alexis Zabe, the film sheds the verite of Baker’s last film, Tangerine (which was shot on a number of iPhone 5s’s), in favor of a gorgeous naturalistic surrealism with an unparalleled color palatte at its core. It’s vibrant and alive with colors unexpected for this type of film, full of purples and oranges, and captures the odd flavor of beachfront property, with their large tourist-trap shapes (a building shaped like an orange is featured prominently at a few points) and impressively bizarre murals.

The unreality of the Orlando setting is always buffeted by the near omnipresence of Walt’s dream, of commercial fantasy attainable by those who could afford it, and the film acknowledges this at every turn. While it’d be remiss of me to tell you this far in advance exactly how it does, know that it’s not the same kind of empty horseshit criticism you’ll find in films like Escape from Tomorrow, and Baker instead both complicates and affirms where you’d think he’d condemn.

It’s a wonderful and weird portrait of Florida as a whole, which is often unfairly maligned as a state full of dipshits and rednecks and retirees by people several income brackets above the so-called “Florida Men” who inhabit the state. The Florida Project is an exciting refinement of Sean Baker’s vast skill as a filmmaker, and a gorgeous and loving portrait of childhood on the margins. It is one of the very best films of the year.

Featured image via TIFF. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.