The Florida Project Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe. Directed by Sean Baker. Rated R. Opens Friday at Suncoast.
Filmmaker Sean Baker had a breakthrough with 2015’s acclaimed, award-winning Tangerine, a story about two transgender prostitutes that was shot entirely on an iPhone, but Baker has been making scrappy indie movies about the marginalized and misunderstood, often with non-professional actors, for years. Thanks to the success of Tangerine, he has his biggest canvas yet for The Florida Project, which is also his most satisfying and fully realized film to date.
In the opposite of the small-scale immediacy of Tangerine’s iPhone cinematography, Florida is shot on gorgeous widescreen 35mm film, capturing the vibrant decay of the garishly colored budget motels near Disney World outside Orlando. That’s where six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live, along with other single parents and latchkey kids, the adults working minimum wage jobs or questionably legal hustles (or both), the kids largely left unsupervised. Motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, the only professional actor in the main cast) does his best to look out for everyone who lives at the blindingly purple Magic Castle, but even he has his limits, especially when the cops get involved.
Although the inexperienced cast and extensive improvisation give the movie a sort of gritty naturalism, Florida isn’t a depressing or pessimistic film. Like Tangerine, it’s a celebration of the camaraderie and optimism of people whose lives could be seen from the outside as desperate or sad. Baker spends a lot of time with Moonee and her friends, goofing off and acting like budding delinquents, and the nearly two-hour movie can feel aimless and discursive, with nothing resembling a cohesive plot until it’s nearly over. But the characters, even at their coarsest and most confrontational, are generally a blast to spend time with, their exuberance and ingenuity carrying the movie in the same way they carry these people through the harshness of life.