What will undoubtedly be one of my favorite films of 2017, writer-director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project follows his previous two exercises in brash (meant in the best possible way) neo-realism, after Starlet and Tangerine. Once again working with first-time actors, the movie is set in The Magic Castle, one of the many pastel-colored, roadside, budget motels in Kissimmee, Florida on the highway leading toward Disney World. It is there that six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, both adorable and a true terror) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live day to day. The mother-daughter team sometimes run low-level scams on tourists for money, but it’s also clear that, when particularly desperate, Halley turns to less savory means to pay the rent and feed her daughter.
The motel is managed by Bobby, in a next-level performance by Willem Dafoe, an actor who has made a career of never repeating himself or avoiding an acting challenge, in this case surrounding himself with untrained actors who guide his performance far more than he steers them in a certain direction. The film really belongs to Moonee and her similarly aged friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and newcomer Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Since Moonee’s mother is away so often, Bobby ends up becoming her de facto guardian as he makes the rounds at the hotel, keeping things working and relatively livable. Moonee has no fear and alternates between defiant and vulnerable with Bobby, depending on the situation.
Co-written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, some of The Florida Project’s most interesting moments occur when outsiders accidentally stumble onto the property. A honeymooning couple realize as soon as they arrive that they have been misled by the travel agent that booked them; late in the film, a john of Halley’s (an unexpected cameo by Macon Blair) come pounding on her door looking for something quite valuable that he knows she stole from him. Every frame of the film is vibrant, even in the most rundown locations around the motel. But there’s also a sense of low-level, impending dread as Halley’s behavior becomes more erratic and reckless, and by the end of the film, things that seem charming and funny turn into something inevitably heartbreaking.
Baker has a true gift, not just for finding people and places who simply never appear on the big screen or have films made about their lives. He has the purest, most empathetic heart of any filmmaker I can think of when it comes to bringing fresh eyes to an age-old lifestyle; In this case, the hidden homeless that surround the family-friendly Disney paradise. Baker makes films like no one else, and they are as vital to understanding America as anything you’ll see in this or most other years. It will win you with compassion and warmth, while simultaneously shaking you to your core.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and the AMC River East 21.