Roger Ebert once said, “[M]ovies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Perhaps no director working today proves this more than Sean Baker. His latest film, and his most prolific to date, is The Florida Project, a little film with a cast of (mostly) unknowns that has emerged as one of the best-reviewed films of the year. And with good reason – few, if any, of this year’s films feel more timely, or pack as emotional a punch.
Set in a run-down motel just outside Disney World (“The Happiest Place on Earth”), The Florida Project follows young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), a woman who can barely make ends meet and struggles to find work. But we see all of this from the point of view of her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), an energetic, good-hearted, and occasionally troublesome girl who sees everything and everyone around her through rose-colored glasses.
While the motel she calls home might not look like much next to the world-famous amusement park next door, Moonee goes through life as if it were a never ending adventure. But the real world has a way of creeping into Moonee’s fantasy – and The Florida Project shines a spotlight on the issues that the economically disadvantaged face every day, through the eyes of a young girl who doesn’t understand the problems at hand but has to deal with the consequences anyway.
Just as he did with his last film, the critically acclaimed Tangerine, Sean Baker seamlessly ties topical issues into his film’s narrative, without ever turning it into a “message movie.” Instead, he prefers to let these issues speak for themselves – as audiences dwell on the movie, they realize that the film’s central conflict wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for these major social problems. In The Florida Project, he takes even greater steps to make these themes an organic part of the story by exploring them from a child’s perspective. Baker realistically recreates the innocence of childhood, with the interactions between Moonee and her friends feeling natural and almost improvised.
But these scenes aren’t all fun and games, and Baker does a wonderful job imbuing suspense into these sequences whenever necessary. One moment, for example, finds the kids’ playtime being interrupted by a mysterious stranger, and what’s initially a joyful scene suddenly becomes incredibly intense. And, in a masterfully directed sequence, Baker repeatedly shows the audience Moonee’s nighttime routine, eventually cluing his audience into the more mature connotation of the montage. It’s stellar work, and evidence that Baker is a gifted naturalistic filmmaker.
Baker also garnered a lot of attention for filming his last movie entirely on an iPhone – an unorthodox decision that paid off. Well, he’s back to relying on film in The Florida Project, but his movie is no less good looking. In keeping with Moonee’s optimistic worldview, the motel’s bright walls pop out, almost like a theme park attraction. His cinematographer, Alexis Zabe, also switches from tight, claustrophobic shots from Moonee’s point of view, to full landscape shots that encompass multiple floors of the motel. While it might not capture fantasylands or recreate historic battles, this is stellar filmmaking and any snubs in the Cinematography or Directing categories at the Oscars would be tragic.
It’s also worth noting that Baker has an eye for finding talent in the most unusual of places, this time pulling surprisingly complex performances from multiple child actors, and a fierce breakthrough from Vinaite, who had no prior acting experience and worked as a fashion designer when Baker contacted her about the part. As Moonee, Prince has a natural screen presence and is appropriately adorable, but in the film’s harrowing final twenty minutes, she’s tasked with conveying complex emotions that would be challenging for an actor three times her age. Vinaite, meanwhile, does a phenomenal job inhabiting a complicated character who isn’t always likable, but commands our respect and sympathy. She’s utterly believable from start to finish.
And Willem Dafoe – one of the only professional actors in the film – delivers an Oscar worthy performance as the stern, but loving, motel manager. Thanks, in part, to Baker’s smart writing, Dafoe avoids any melodramatic moments. Instead, he exhibits the care he has for Moonee and her mother through understated actions and body language. It’s terrific, and against-type work.
But the best thing about The Florida Project is the way it teleports audiences into a world they may not be familiar with, and does so without apologizing for or sanitizing the harsh realities of it. This is a film that has empathy for almost everyone on screen, and refuses to judge these characters – even when they make poor or unhealthy decisions. Instead, it asks the audience to consider what external forces might lead these characters to make such decisions. And, maybe through the cinematic power of empathy, it will inspire those viewers to make a difference in the real world.
With these characters, Sean Baker puts a face to the issues of poverty, sex work, race relations, and child endangerment, all while delivering a stellar, memorable film. This is one of the best movies you’ll see in 2017, and one that will hopefully stick with you long after the year comes to a close.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10