Wicked Warmth in the Sundappled Skies of “The Florida Project”

Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Sandy Kane
Produced by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou
Executive Produced by: Elayne Schneiderman, Darren Dean
Music by: Lorne Balfe
Cinematography by: Alexis Zabe
Editing by: Sean Baker
Official Selection of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight

While they’re not a trilogy in any literal sense, the most recent three releases from the filmmaker Sean Baker and his core collaborators, including Chris Bergoch, Shih-Ching Tsou, and Kevin Chinoy, have been a hat trick of astounding cinematic flexible. I can count on two hands the creative collectives with this group’s impeccable track record, but even fewer filmmakers make work so emotionally gorgeous.

Starlet, from 2012, waltzed softly through the sex industry of central Los Angeles before setting its attentions on the wonderfully odd couple played by Dree Hemingway and the late Besedka Johnson (my review of the film for the long-defunct Medium Rare Television is no longer available, but it put Baker and I in touch.)

The low-key majesty of Starlet set the stage for Baker’s explosion into the national consciousness two years ago with Tangerine. At that film’s 2015 World Premiere, at Sundance, I wrote: “Tangerine represents both Baker’s and co-writer’s Chris Bergoch’s most significant ventures into populist territory without sacrificing a scintilla of the immense heart that typifies their work together”.

This is no longer true in the sense that The Florida Project, which A24 is currently distributing in theaters around the country, is their highest-profile work to date. It even features marketable actors like Willem Dafoe and the Get Out psychopath Caleb Landry Jones, who under Baker’s aegis each give amongst their most charming performances.

What remains, however, is the filmmakers’ staunch refusal (Baker and Bergoch co-wrote the script, while Baker edited, produced, and directed) to give up certain principles of their practice, such as their dedication to precisely honed, and locale-specific, cinematography; the enforced collision of diverse sexual, ethnic and cultural backgrounds; and attention to people too old, fat, young, or marginal in class to be given lines in most Hollywood productions.

As a result, A24 has with The Florida Project a genuine contender not only for professional accolades, but also for the lifelong adoration of those who discover independent cinema at home, on their computers, and in their local libraries.

The film’s intense warmth lies primarily with its central twosome: Moonee, an irrepressible latchkey kid brought to lie by the rubber-faced Brooklynn Prince; and her mother, Halley, played with fuck-it-all punk irony by Bria Vinaite.

Though she’s of school-age (one character explains that it is summer break), Moonee’s humid days are primarily devoted to her imagination and to her friends, Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto, nearly perfect). I am reminded in Prince’s ebullient, exemplary performance of my own experiences whiling away my summers, my two dearest friends and I jumping rope or watching used VHS tapes we found in the public library.

Prince plays Moonee as The Iconic Child, given to indulging a sort of generalized, unburdened American id when her mother isn’t watching. She scrounges for strangers’ money and curses when she doesn’t get it; she vandalizes and starts fires; and she eats ice cream at every possible moment.

If Moonee’s face is a virtual Rorschach test – in her, we either see ourselves, or who we imagine everyone else to have been in childhood – Halley is the prototype for her daughter’s behavior.

Too young or perhaps too jaded to parent her daughter, she spends her days packing bowls and watching television at an endearingly seedy motel on the outskirts of Disneyworld. Sometimes, she sells wholesale perfume illegally in the parking lots of local resorts, scraping by on freebies from Scooty’s mom, Ashley (Mela Murder).

Halley is defensive, hedonistic, angry, and often ferocious; yet as an early argument with a neighbor tells us, she is a devoted and oddly natural, even respectful, parent.

Vinaite, who like Prince is a first-time film actor, is sensational in a role that defies stereotypes of white-trashness. Caring, but irresponsible; lazy, but hustling; independent, but manipulable: Vinaite captures how the fracturing of Halley’s life gives her more excuse to close up. This is among Baker’s recurrent motifs – the struggles of poverty-level fighters long since spat out by The System (Halley’s TV-and-weed habits even look similar to Stella Maeve’s in Starlet.)

But in The Florida Project, manifest representations of systemic disregard and class segregation are more common than ever before in Baker’s films. Fear of Florida’s child protection services lurks in every corner of The Magic Castle, including in the office of the supportive manager, Bobby (Dafoe). The owner (Baker favorite Karren Karagulian) makes regular threats to his tenants’ comforts and evicts them before they can establish legal residency. When a battle breaks out between adults, it’s not long before the Department of Children and Families is notified.

This incipient dread, present from the first in Alexis Zabe’s dynamic cinematography (does a winding staircase ever forecast anything other than doom in cinema?), makes for a compelling yin against the comic, hypercolored jaunt that Moonee and her friends spend the first two acts taking.

Stephonik Youth’s gorgeous production design and Kurt Thoresen’s lived-in set decoration extend this chasm: what we see is fantastical, excitable, kinetic; yet what we feel is the crushing pain of too-close-to-home realities.

How Baker and Bergoch balance the upsettingly incisive Neorealism of their scripts with bombastic visual revelry remains an alchemical process, but who needs to dissect a film so striking and impactful as this one?

It is enough to watch it while it remains in theaters – an absolute must not only for the filmmaker’s fans; but also for those who admired Zabe’s work with Carlos Reygadas; or anyone, like myself, underwhelmed by the beautiful redundancy of the newly-released Blade Runner 2049. Thankfully, The Florida Project is now in select theaters.

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