Sean Baker doesn’t make movies about characters. Sean Baker makes movies about people. Real people: they have hopes and foibles, ambitions and failings; they can be funny and sad, one minute they’re winning, the next they’re reeling, brought down by a world that expects nothing of them but failure; they’re doing the best they can, struggling to be the best they can be and always on the wrong side of The American Dream; they’re not perfect (who is?) and they know it (or, at least, suspect it). Most of all Sean Baker’s people are defined by love, not romantic love perhaps but love in its purest and rawest distillation, love that can be brutal and beautiful, heart-breaking and heart-lifting all in the same moment.
In writer/director Baker’s latest film, The Florida Project, it is the unseen inhabitants of one of the most visited locations on Earth who take centre stage, a place where sixty million wide-eyed holiday makers see nought but friendly-looking, human-sized mice, magic castles, spaceships both real and imagined and a clinically clean, micro-managed utopia which promises an America that, in reality, can never exist. U.S. 192, Kissimmee – a sprawling strip mall of low rent gift stores, gun shops (that promise “Fun With Guns”), ice cream stands, all-you-can-eat buffets, fairy tale pastels and screaming American eagle murals – lays within spitting distance of the fibre-glass fantasy gates of Disney’s hallowed land. A variety of themed motels lay on the strip, optimistically, opportunistically built to pick the scraps of uncle Walt’s visitors, luridly painted moths drawn to the sealed flame of corporate wealth. Devoid of vacationers, these motels make their money housing a homeless and transient population, people caught in a poverty trap that offers no succour to the very poorest (with no access to housing benefits unless they can work at least 30 hours a week these families must find upwards of $1000 a month just to keep the rent paid and their heads above water).
This life is seen through the eyes of six-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), a precocious, adventurous, fun-loving rascal living with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a gaudy purple and yellow painted eyesore inappropriately named The Magic Castle. But what might appear gauche and tasteless to adult eyes is a fantasy land for six-year-old imaginations which never allow reality the chance to come between them and adventure: to Moonee and her friends hustling pennies for an ice cream becomes a mission impossible of risk and reward and a visit to some cows in a field an expedition into the darkest heart of Africa. Trying to keep The Magic Castle from falling apart and, in his own fashion, those families which reside within is manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), an implacable mother-hen and catcher in the rye combined.
The film is essentially a collection of vignettes (some funny, some tragic, all poignant) that push forward the loose narrative towards its almost inevitable conclusion. While that conclusion may seem depressing, a post-script that features Moonee and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) running wild in Disney World (more on this after a “Spoiler” warning later) offers an uplifting message of hope and joy, that as long as these kids have imagination the world will never be able to crush them completely.
The Florida Project is stuffed to bursting with incredible and natural performances, not least from the kids. Shaun Baker allows the kids to be kids, they aren’t acting they’re just being and, to a child, they are all wonderful. Bria Vinaite is vulgar, loving, fun, sexy, dangerously unpredictable and perfect; it is difficult to say where her acting begins and where her reality ends, how much of this is her and how much is Halley, it is an effortless and incredible performance rarely seen and, as such, it should be treasured. Willem Dafoe has, I think, never been so human or humane in a career crammed with great performances (and some not so great, it has to be said) as he is as ageing Holden Caulfield-alike Bobby. He is people I’ve met, people I know and people I aspire to be, I can offer no higher praise.
Shaun Baker has pulled his influences from seemingly everywhere and yet has managed to make a film that stands alone, singularly waving a fist at mainstream cinema whilst embracing everything that is great about it. The Florida Project flips the bird at what Disney has become but is in love with the purity of what it represents (or, at least, what it once did): The idea that “fun” can become a corporate, organised product packaged and micro-managed and sold to those that can afford it and mindless enough to be shown how to have it versus a conduit that taps directly into the imaginations of children (and the child which still lives within us) and frees us from the drudgery, fear and existential wastelands of our own (self or otherwise) imposed lifestyles. I suppose you could draw a correlation to the irreverent subversion of The Lego Movie, a film that urged us to throw away the instructions and do whatever we wanted, or whatever we needed, in order to free ourselves from the chains and nets of what corporate and governmental society expects us to be (see also James Joyce).
The Florida Project allows us to explore the edges of “The American Dream”, an unseen world full of people doing whatever they can to survive, those that look after them and, more importantly, urges us to think about those that are supposed to but don’t (or won’t). It’s a very special film.
A lot of Twitter comments have pointed toward The Florida Project‘s final scenes, with Moonee and Jancy breaking into Disney World (scenes that apparently had to be filmed covertly, as Baker had no permission to shoot there). A lot of people seem upset or confused with this breaking the reality of the film as the park is notoriously hot on security. Personally, I genuinely don’t think these scenes should be read as literal: My own reading is that Disney World is used as a representation of Moonee’s escape from her tragic reality and into her imagination. To Moonee every adventure is an escape to The Magic Kingdom from the Kilimanjaro Safari to the Haunted Mansion to Cinderella’s Enchanted Castle, so that is what you, the viewer, are finally allowed into: Moonee’s world.