Sean Baker’s breakout feature Tangerine (2015), a comedy about a duo of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles that was shot entirely on the iPhone 5S, heralded an exciting cinematic talent. While Baker had made four previous features, the recurring themes and interests of his career coalesced beautifully in Tangerine. The Florida Project, his latest endeavour, builds on the promise of that film and once again showcases Baker’s ability to paint a dark portrait of contemporary America.
The movie opens at a motel in Florida near Disneyland, whose low-rent rooms are less used by tourists and more by marginalised Americans as places of residence. Among the residents are young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her seven-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). The film unfolds over the summer months as the two struggle to scrape by. Halley manages to earn the rent and food money by recruiting Moonee and going to a nearby country club to sell perfume. Mooney, who is brilliantly portrayed by Prince, idles away the time with her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto).
The adults have to suffer the ignominies of a life without wealth or success. They are forced to check out for one day each month and shift rooms so as to not establish residency. In a telling scene, the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) asks a local charity group to distribute their food rations at the back of the hotel so the tourists do not learn the truth about the hotel’s residents.
None of the film’s characters is likable in the conventional sense. Halley is an irresponsible mother. Mooney is a little spoilt. But they remain compelling. Baker has a real fondness for his characters, and his scenes have a real honesty to them. However, Baker never attempts to reveal what really drives his characters. Like a slew of recent American films, that portray the lives of the working class, including American Honey (2016) and Logan Lucky (2017), The Florida Project finds it difficult to uncover the interior life of its characters. They only seem to be fuelled by urges.
Disneyland becomes a very real presence within the film. The hotel is done up in bright candy colours and fuels the fantasy life Mooney creates for herself to pass the time. The vivid colours are a respite from the bleakness of the story. The only way to survive in the world of The Florida Project is to see it through the kids’ eyes, with innocence and fantasy.