Though past 40 and on his fourth feature film at the time, director Sean Baker seemed to burst onto the indie scene in 2015 with his vividly imagined Tangerine. It quickly became known as "the iPhone movie" because it was the first major film shot entirely on that device.
Tangerine's raucous tale of transgender prostitutes on the mean streets of Hollywood struck a chord with audiences, but not for its technical achievements. The heightened reality of the film's visuals served to frame well-drawn characters and a series of authentic, affecting performances from first-time actors.
For all its successes, Tangerine now seems a warmup for Baker's far more accomplished The Florida Project. The director once again tells a story from the margins of society, where resilient characters confront epic struggles one day at a time. But The Florida Project transforms what might have seemed too-familiar territory by telling its story from the perspective of a precocious and uniquely spirited 6-year-old girl.
That premise has already invited comparison to Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, but unlike Zeitlin's film, The Florida Project is no fable.
Grounded in the harsh realities endured by real-life "hidden homeless," The Florida Project's main characters are frozen out of the rental housing market and live week to week in cheap motels along Highway 192. The terrible irony at the heart of the film is that these candy-colored, mid-century motels exist in the shadow of Disney World, a global focus of childhood fantasies but a distant dream for the impoverished, motel-bound kids of The Florida Project.
That description might make Baker's film sound like a lecture on social justice in a world still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008, but nothing could be further from the truth. The kids depicted in The Florida Project perceive their seedy surroundings as an endless source of wonder, mystery and fun, in sharp contrast to the daily struggles of their mostly single parents. The tension between these two worlds drives The Florida Project and gives it a magic all its own.
At the center of the story is Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her pals Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), rambunctious kids spending their summer scamming ice cream cones from tourists, making fun of topless sunbathers and exploring abandoned condo developments. Moonee's defiant mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is an unemployed exotic dancer finding increasingly dangerous ways to support her child. Motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) does his best to keep the ever-growing chaos at bay.
Making all of this work is Baker's knack for mixing first-time actors with seasoned professionals to extraordinary effect.
As the pint-sized Mooney, Prince is nothing short of astounding — it would not be surprising if she became the youngest Oscar nominee of all time (a designation currently held by Beasts' Quvenzhane Wallis). First-time actor Vinaite (whom Baker found on Instagram) keeps up with Prince every step of the way. As Bobby, Dafoe (Platoon, Wild at Heart) delivers a career-topping performance and reveals the simple power of decency and compassion when circumstances are most dire.
Remarkably, the lack of a traditional story arc only seems to benefit Baker's impressionistic film. The director traded his iPhone for a 35mm film camera, but the results are not so different — a rare glimpse of a largely unseen world and an artful reflection of our own.