It seems fair to say that one of the biggest breakouts in the film world during these past few years was 2015’s Tangerine, co-written and directed by Sean Baker. Garnering almost as much attention for its empathetic, energetic focus on trans female sex workers in Los Angeles as it did for its ultra-low-budget shooting style on three iPhone 5Ss, one could easily assume that the movie was Baker’s directorial debut. But in point of fact, the movie was his fifth feature, and with his sixth and latest film, The Florida Project, Baker returns to his favored shooting format of 35mm, this time in the at once fantastical and sober environs of Orlando, Florida.
Whereas Tangerine aimed for an almost abrasive, unapologetic energy, with its narrative confined to the drama of a web of relationships on Christmas Eve, The Florida Project‘s goal is something more sprawling and languorous. The film takes place over a summer at the Magic Castle, a motel-cum-extended-stay complex in the shadow of Disney World, focusing on Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, remarkable), a wild six-year-old, and Halley (Bria Vinaite), her equally uncontrolled mother. What framework of a narrative unspools at a leisurely pace, mostly content to observe as Moonee plays with a set of friends around the alternately pastoral and urban area surrounding the motel.
Setting is key here, and Baker renders it with just the right amount of heightened fantasy to emulate the view of a young child. Leafy trees are just as prevalent as the looming businesses with names like Orange World and Machine Gun America, and they dwarf the little children as they scurry through well-trodden paths to and from the relative oasis of the Magic Castle. Said establishment is run by Bobby – played by a truly wonderful Willem Dafoe, achieving a beautiful empathy through a kind of erasure of his most distinguishing features – who regards the denizens of his abode with no small amount of fondness, though he is more than willing to lay down the law when needed.
Despite this very loose premise, The Florida Project takes a while to truly flag, owing to a studious avoidance of anything resembling a humdrum routine. Moonee and her friends seem to always be thinking of what new and exciting things to do, which sometimes leads into legitimate trouble (a particular incident at the halfway point results in a drastic change). However, mostly the events pass by in a joyful rush; though there are more than a few scenes that stand out in the mind, the general impression is of a striking blur, no less effective for its idyllic nature.
Understandably, one viewer’s reaction to this premise will vary from another’s, and at its core The Florida Project is a two hour film featuring frequently profane, largely unsupervised people playing havoc with the constraints of “proper” society. But the movie distinguishes itself with a relatively measured yet exuberant approach, only rarely falling into uncomplicated expectations and on the whole genuinely capturing something genuinely joyous. The climax is necessarily telegraphed and comes with just the right amount of pathos, but what comes after is truly astonishing. I haven’t seen a moment in another film from this year that achieves the kind of wary transcendence, through narrative and form (switching from celluloid to the digital of an iPhone), that so perfectly captures the allure of fantasy.